Friday, May 09, 2008

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: FIREWATER SEEKS ITS OWN LEVEL

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
May 9, 2008


Back in the late ’80s to mid-’90s, singer Tod A was in an “industrial” band called Cop Shoot Cop. Remember industrial music? It was kind of like heavy metal played by evil robots.

The main thing I remember about Cop Shoot Cop was a little ditty called “Surprise, Surprise,” from the 1993 album Ask Questions Later, which featured the refrain, “Surprise, surprise! The government lies!” (The album was released just a few weeks before the Branch Davidian tragedy in Waco, Texas. Surely a coincidence.)

Tod’s latest band, Firewater, can hardly be considered industrial. In fact, its new album, The Golden Hour, which was recorded in India, Pakistan, Turkey, and Israel, has an international rock sound influenced by the music of those nations as well as Balkan music and even some Latin and Caribbean styles.

But Mr. A still has some of that Cop Shoot Cop spirit in him. He might not sound like an evil robot anymore, but he’s still repulsed by government lies.

The Golden Hour has the feel of a political exile’s diary. Disgusted with the paranoid climate in the U.S. — and having just split with his wife — a frustrated and depressed Tod left the country with a guitar and a laptop, recording local musicians in the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and Southwest Asia.

Khyber Pass interlude. Tod kept a written diary, available on his blog, . One of my favorite posts is from Aug. 1, 2006. Scroll down to “Sick Days, Sufi Nights, Drugs, Guns, and Transvestites,” which concerns his decision to abort his plan to cross the Khyber Pass, which links Pakistan and Afghanistan, because of the danger of kidnapping.

“I learned a lot about football: locked in an Amritsar hotel room with only the World Cup and the shits to stave off the interminable boredom; I escaped being drugged and robbed in Jaisalmer; I entertained thinly veiled marriage proposals from Punjabi farm girls; I ate opium and jammed with Thar desert gypsies; I slept alone under the stars; I danced with transvestites among the graves of Sufi saints; I took many pictures; I stood in the rain with crowds of ecstatic people as the first rains of the monsoon erupted from the sky; I made a healthy start on a novel; I recorded six music groups, gathering enough rhythm tracks for the next Firewater album; I was robbed only once (a cellphone), but otherwise managed to hang on to my computer and other pricey recording gear. I made some new friends. Weighed with these measures the trip was a success.”

Back to the music. “Borneo,” a cool jungle stomp that reminds me a lot of Los Lobos’ version of “I Wanna Be Like You (The Monkey Song),” sets the stage for The Golden Hour: “Well, I ain’t gonna live in your world no more (Hey, Borneo!)/Feelin’ like a flunky for a two-bit whore (Here I come, Borneo!)/You got a monkey for a president (Hey, Borneo!)/And a head all filled up with cement (Look out, Borneo!)”

Tod is more pensive on the next track, “This Is My Life,” on which he is backed up with ents, and what the liner notes describe as “cannibal drums” played by (Tamir Muskat of Balkan Beat Box). “I’ve never cared for authority/I’ve never felt part of the majority/I lost my home, I lost my wife/This is no joke — this is my life.”

Each song is a weird little foreign adventure — bouncy Bollywood reggae in “Banghra Bros”; a sad tango with a crazy guitar solo in “Paradise”; some circus music, complete with trombone and banjo in “Hey Clown” (which might be another George W. Bush “tribute”); and “Electric City,” which sounds like the soundtrack for a spy movie.

Though The Golden Hour is charged with political anger (“We’re gonna burn your flag and piss on your parade,” Tod rasps on “Hey Clown”), his feelings of melancholy are the most striking element of the album. This mood reaches a climax in “Feels Like the End of the World.”

Though the music, recorded partly in Istanbul, is up-tempo — lots of that James Bond guitar and impressive percussion — Tod’s lyrics speak of emotional crisis. “And I probably should shave/And dig myself out of this grave/But I can’t go, no, not just yet ... So tonight in the bar/Of this hotel bizarre/I’ll write some postcards and throw them away.”

The traveler returns in “Weird to Be Back,” Fishbone-like ska with a little flamenco guitar. “So I just dropped in today/To check up on my old obsessions/Everything’s the same/Or maybe just a little worse.”

And by the last song, “Three Legged Dog,” Tod’s back on the prowl, his self-effacing humor at full strength. “You know my father thinks I’m crazy ’cause I ain’t got no career/And my mother thinks I’m crazy and my sister thinks I’m queer/Ah, but if you think it’s easy, man, you just ain’t got no idea/I’m a three-legged dog on the roam.” Backed by a “Sympathy-for-the-Devil” woo-woo chorus (and Uri Kinrot — also of Balkan Beat Box — on electric banjo), this tune gives us hope that Tod A’s going to be roaming for a long songs from The Golden Hour.

Also recommended:
* Dances of Resistance by Babylon Circus. This is a French band that specializes in ska and reggae. But this latest album shows the group has a good awareness of other sounds, too.

“De la Musique et du Bruit,” for instance, is a little jazzy, a little poppy, and a lot crazy. You can hear a Mideastern influence and maybe even a little Mr. Bungle as the tempo picks up.

The Bungle comparison is even more apt in “Mr. Clown” and “Musical Terrorism Act.”

Meanwhile “Warlord” could be described as science-fiction reggae, while “Sailor’s Wife” is ska with hillbilly-twang guitar and strange clarinets. And you have to love the little circus-music instrumental interludes that pop up between songs.

Babylon Circus makes me miss another great French band, Les Négresses Vertes; their 1988 debut album Mlah was a world-punk milestone.

UPDATE: Several hours after the initial post, I repaired some computer-induced gibberish in the Firewater review.

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