Songs We Should Have Written
Doing covers of popular songs is very dicey business for a band. People attach certain meanings to songs that exist in their history and because of that become very protective of those particular tunes. The reason this matters is because on Songs We Should Have Written, Firewater decided to tackle some old chestnuts of pop and country and give them a very dark and devious treatment. You won't jump for joy when you hear any of the 11 selections on this disk, but you will feel strangely compelled to listen again to decipher the hidden meanings. Is there a method to the madness here, or were these songs just random selections that each band member coughed up during a break from rehearsing their original material?
Firewater is led by former Cop Shoot Cop member Todd Ashley and some friends from Soul Coughing and Jesus Lizard, which means that their indie cred is very substantial, to say the least, but why do a recording comprised of other people's work? Well, to make a statement, of course. What can be cooler than wearing your inspiration on your sleeve or, better yet, making fun of other people's inspirations? It could be big fun to piss all over what someone you think less of holds sacred. Whatever the motivation, the band has laid down some inspired yet black-as-coal renditions of songs that you or your parents may have liked or hated.
From Robyn Hitchock to the Beatles to Sonny and Cher to Johnny Cash, Firewater tramples on some pretty hallowed ground on Songs We Should Have Written. Whether they're pulling a fast one or actually paying homage to their influences, this disc is certainly worth checking out. There is a dark, atonal feel to the songs, but that could be by design. How else could you interpret songs that have been covered before but yet make them sound new? (RD)
(Jetset Records -- P.O. Box 20519, New York, NY. 10009; http://www.jetsetrecords.com/; Firewater -- http://www.firewater.tv/)
Big Mistake Factory
On the cover of Fivehead's six-song Big Mistake Factory EP is a random yet predictable picture of a man riding an ostrich. At first glance, the picture doesn't seem to say a lot about the band, aside from the fact that this Austin-based quintet seems to appreciate the kind of calculated visual irony that seems to be a staple of indie-rock album artwork these days. But the first track of the CD, the gently loping, deceptively pleasant "Cape Codders," convinced me that there might actually be a reason why Fivehead chose to put an ostrich on the cover of Big Mistake Factory. The songs on "Big Mistake Factory" are esoteric, whimsical, and slightly precocious -- written by a band that knows how to put a traditional Chinese instrument into a rock song without making it sound like a cheap gimmick ("#1 Heart"), that knows how to weave together acoustic guitar and melancholy-sounding strings just so ("Halftime Show"), and that isn't afraid to repeat the phrase "and so on" about fifteen times or so to fill a bridge.
Don't be fooled by the experimental string section -- this band is entirely capable of delivering an urgent, straightforward rock song when it counts ("Mo elling"). Beyond that, lead singer John Hunt's flat, smirking vocals will sound familiar to fans of Stephen Malkmus; indeed, the band's contribution to a 2003 Pavement tribute album (Everything Is Ending Here, on Homesleep) seems to suggest that Pavement merits more than a footnote in this review. Fivehead's strength lies not in ripping off slacker rock, though, but in its ability to charm the weariness out of a tenuous, weather-beaten violin and an old guitar, against the background of a dissonant, perfect drone. (AL)
(Tight Spot Records -- P.O. Box 49543, Austin, TX. 78765; http://www.tightspotrecords.com/; Fivehead -- http://www.fiveheadmusic.com/)
The Flaming Sideburns
Save Rock 'n' Roll
They just keep coming; it seems there's no way to stop them. How did garage rock so thoroughly infect Scandahoovians' musical tastes? Is the Nuggets box set to blame? Was it something Iggy said about lutefisk? At any rate, here they are. The Flaming Sideburns have ventured from their home in Finland, bent on saving rock 'n' roll. I didn't realize rock 'n' roll was in need of salvation, but I guess that just shows what I know. Too bad about the name, although I guess perhaps it could be an interesting visual image -- of the five band members, it looks like only Ski Williamson has anything resembling sideburns. "The Punisher," "Jay Burnside," and "Johnny Volume" all seem to be burnless, although it's a little hard to tell with the shaggy-haired singer Eduardo Martinez (who, oddly, hails from Argentina, and sings some of these tunes in Spanish).
The Flaming Sideburns specialize in a high energy hybrid of soulful garage rock, a la the MC5, Raw Power-era Stooges (see "World Domination"), and the Rolling Stones (see "Stripped Down"). They're tight, they know their stuff, and they play this music very well. One problem with their approach, however, is the uniformity of the high-energy thing. Most songs are consistently loud and up-tempo, with the occasional exception, like the Stones-y "Ungrounded Confusion," and while I bet it'd be a blast to see them live, the songs tend to blend together somewhat. In the end, I'm not sure that the Sideburns are really adding anything to this genre. I've listened to this album a number of times, but none of it's really stuck with me or wormed its way into my subconscious. Having said that, if you need some rockin' to get you hoppin', well, you've come to the right place. (CP)
(Jetset Records -- P.O. Box 20519, New York, NY. 10009; http://www.jetsetrecords.com/; The Flaming Sideburns -- http://www.theflamingsideburns.com/)
The Flashing Astonishers
Everything Is Gonna Stop
They hail from Syracuse, NY, they've got a press packet roughly the length of Das Kapital, they've got a ludricrously hyperbolic name, their mastermind is a guy who glosses himself with a "yeti" sobriquet, and there's even a Dobbshead on the CD itself -- so the contents of this disc (released in 1998, so this is a puzzlingly tardy evaluation, but hey, I just write reviews here) come as a mild surprise. Remember what your typical "college music" record was like in the late '80s? All those jangly guitars kinda buzzing around each other; recursive, tail-eating chord progressions; bass lines that either leapt all over the place or stayed Velvet Underground-steady; deadpannish abstract lyrics; something that sounded defiantly midway between pop and rock. That's what Everything is Gonna Stop sounds like -- the Church, True West, Guadalcanal Diary, Hunters and Collectors, and above all, The Feelies of Only Life, only less laid-back.
It doesn't help their case for originality (if indeed they wish to make that case) that vocalist/guitarist Dan Musclow resembles Glenn Mercer a bit, but that's not all -- almost the entire CD is like a Stations Of The Cross for circa Nirvana-explosion-electric music, 1987-1993. Here's a bit of Swervedriver and Catherine Wheel ("Anillo," which is a rather good song in itself), an amusing late Feelies soundalike ("Lipbomb," whose opening couplet is "She lives in luxury / She's got a thing for Morrissey"), a Yo La Tengo-like tune with Mazzy Star guitar ("I Come Up, I Go Down"), the stop-start Polvo roar without the mind-warping dissonance ("Broken Stained Glass"), etc. There are even a couple of cracks at some out-and-out punk ("La De Dey," "Alien"), if only the guitars weren't so...polite.
This record is, on its own terms, good, but I can't shake the feeling that istening to this record is just like pulling out those old REM records, digging out that skinny knit tie you wore to your junior high dance, and thinking about the music that you used to listen to and die for before the world became irreversibly wider. It can be fun to get nostalgic, but you can't ignore the fact that it's over now, and some of us have already drunk our big black cows and got outta there; the world of The Flashing Astonishers is a nice place to visit, but you've already been there, and you wouldn't wanna hang out for very long. (MA)
(Koala Records/Watchmen Records)