4 out of 5
Label: Jetset Records
Produced by: Tod Ashley, Tamir Muskat
With apologies to Tod Ashley and Firewater, the band has somewhat always been a shtick. Cop Shoot Cop was a shtick – take a look at that name – and then Firewater started out with an album with an image of Jesus on the cover, entitled ‘Get Off the Cross, We Need the Wood for the Fire.’ Sure.
Tod’s stumbling-drunk tales of trashy denizens and misfire relationships matched his Waits-growl; CSC’s NY thrash grunge sound had matured into world weary snark, with a squeezebox circusy rhythm underscoring the kind of play-acting the band was doing. As with CSC, this had a bid towards radio-ready rock at one point – Firewater’s Psychopharmacology – but even if Ashley’s words tell wholly recognizable stories about depression, and agreeable rah-rahs about over medication, the band and singer still lean, sonically, in a darker, bleaker direction than listeners may prefer, and that shtick is all-encompassing, so unless you’re down with doing a little squeezebox jig alongside, it can perhaps get tiresome.
As such, your mileage may vary with any given Firewater disc, but the title of this one is especially apt: boil the stylistic touchpoints of the group down, and you’ll come away with a lot of what you find here: from classic 60s pop to Johnny Cash to Stones’ bluesy jangle and etc. And, of course, Waits.
On a first pass, even if you’re not necessarily familiar with the source material, the album is Firewater perfection: celebratory and sad at the same time, twisting smiles into questionable sneers with Ashley’s slow-roll delivery or the production, which reverbs the heck out of some elements and deepens the low-end delightfully, making “shallow” singalongs have a particular resonance. The choice to slow some things down or, y’know, make them jigs, isn’t just an extension of that shtick: it makes the tracks sound like… Firewater should have written them, as though the existence of this band was all justification to get to this covers disc.
A slower listen does suggest some spots that could have been tightened up, perhaps, with Ashley’s / Tamir Muskat’s production and sound decisions maybe over-treating some elements in such a way that it distracts from the magic that’s made just by Tod’s (and Britta Phillips’) vocal efforts applied to the already memorable melodies; and while choices like Folsom County Blues are perfect, we start to dip maybe too much into that type of “that makes sense” well with This Little Light of Mine, and Paint It, Black and others – all individually excellent, but starting to tickle that shtick sensibility somewhat. Heather Phares’ allmusic review has a much more intelligent dive into this, even if I don’t necessarily agree with every particular.
That said, it’s something that this is one of my more frequented Firewater discs, in the sense that I feel like it maybe best defines what they’re about, before and after this point. That’s besides it just being a truly enjoyable, fun, but also affecting set of songs. presented in such a way as not to betray Tod’s crooked-smile sound.