Somehow, Firewater has passed a lot of people by. (I was one of them, until recently.) Founded in the mid ’90s by the band’s sole permanent member, singer/guitarist/bassist/bouzouki player Tod A. (it stands for Ashley), they’re something of an anomaly in the New York City rock scene. In place of the heavy, nasty grime-punk vibes of A.’s former band Cop Shoot Cop, they’ve got an internationalist bent — folk instruments from around the globe nestled up with massive swinging rhythms, and A. growling menacing hooks in a voice that sounds like he’s been gargling with ground-up Tom Waits CDs. Despite their constant turnover of members, they’re a remarkably consistent band in some ways, but each of their records has a distinct mood, and four of them have just been reissued. Here’s a guide to their six albums to date in the order I recommend checking them out, with a suggested track to download for a taste of what each one’s like.
Year of Release: 1996
The Sound: Tod A.'s initial incarnation of Firewater featured Duane Denison and Jim Kimball (both of the Jesus Lizard), David Ouimet (who'd played with A. in Cop Shoot Cop), Yuval Gabay (of Soul Coughing), and Downtown NYC stalwards Hahn Rowe and Kurt Hoffman. Jennifer Charles of Elysian Fields sings a bit on two tracks, too. A. is wearing his inspirations on his sleeve here — Tom Waits, most obviously, but also Russian singer/songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky and French chansonnier Jacques Brel ("When I Burn This Place Down" shares a tango rhythm with the latter's "Au Suivant"). You can tell what a blast it was for these rockers to take a swing at klezmer horn lines and Latin-jazz beats.
Song to Start With: "Snake-Eyes and Boxcars," which repurposes a hook from a traditional sea chantey into "what shall we do with the drunken failure?"
Year of Release: 2008
The Sound: Following Songs We Should Have Written, a burned-out Tod A. packed a backpack and took off for a three-year meander across the Middle East and Asia, recording local musicians along the way. The album he wrote around those recordings (every song here includes, at least, samples of them) delivers on Firewater's perpetual promise of pan-global fusion, although A. still mixes himself louder than any of the brass bands and dance groups he played with. Its lyrics are more direct than he'd written before: this is the diary-in-song of an American distressed by his own culture who's headed off to see how the other side of the world might be able to change him.
Song to Start With: "Electric City," a hybrid of A.'s usual oompah-stomp and a dubbed-out bhangra groove.
Year of Release: 1998
The Sound: Most of the Get Off the Cross lineup reunites for two tracks at the end, but almost all of Firewater turned over between their first and second album: this time Tod A. and Hahn Rowe are joined by George Javori, Ori Kaplan, Tim Otto and Paul Wallfisch. This is their most straightforward garage-rock album in a lot of ways — they default to big distorted guitar and organ riffs when they want to get dramatic, and their increasingly ingenious production touches are generally in the service of three-chord fist-pumping — but the horn section is particularly nifty, especially on the opening spy-movie instrumental "Ponzi's Theme." Central lyrical theme: the moral bankruptcy of religion.
Song to Start With: "Dropping Like Flies," the most rollicking evocation of mass slaughter the '90s downtown scene could have come up with.
Year of Release: 2001
The Sound: Practically a concept album about depression and its various remedies, this is Firewater's most compact record: 10 three- to four-minute rockers and slow ones that are all bulletins from a Bad Place. Firewater's always had terrific drummers, and Tamir Muskat (who doubles as co-producer and engineer) is this album's secret weapon — even when he's quietly keeping time, he never lets you forget how hard he could hit if he felt like it. And Tod A. is singing as belligerently as ever, but this time the fury comes from the suggestion that he's summoning his last reserves of strength.
Song to Start With: "Get Out of My Head," whose uncountable guitar riffs jab at each other from all over the mix.
Year of Release: 2004
The Sound: Firewater's covers album effectively explains the difference between what they sound like as a band and what Tod A. is like as a songwriter. It's a set of heavy, loping versions of some very familiar songs that did a lot to shape their aesthetic, including "Some Velvet Morning" (addiction references! duets between a wrecked-voiced man and an angelic-voiced woman!), "Folsom Prison Blues" (murder references! brash attitude!) and "Paint It Black" (nihilism references! internationalist instrumentation! — on Firewater's crawlingly paced, desperate rendition, A. and Tamir Muskat are joined by three Indian musicians).
Song to Start With: "Diamonds and Gold," on which A. pays homage to his idol Tom Waits.
Year of Release: 2003
The Sound: Despite a pair of splendid instrumentals, "Ponzi's Revenge" and "Before the Fall," Firewater's most abrasive album is sometimes tough going. As its title suggests, there's a bit more circus music than usual on this one. There's also a lot of painful indignation, a handful of in-your-face experiments (like the answering machine messages that "The Truth Hurts" and "Secret" are built around), and a few too many ideas that seem recycled from their earlier records.
Song to Start With: "Too Much (Is Never Enough)," which could be a '60s-style pop-samba dancefloor number if not for its withering fusillades of guitar noise and Tod A.'s scathing lyrics and sneering vocal.