Firewater, ‘Songs We Should Have Written’ (Jet Set) V/A, ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before…” (Rough Trade)
Apparently, it’s not just DJs and single record store employees who like making mix tapes; even rock stars are getting in on the act. Two current releases feature indie bands covering the works of other songwriters. The New York-based Firewater was formed in 1996 by members of other notable rock groups, including guitarist Duane Denison of Jesus Lizard, drummer Yuval Gabay of Soul Coughing, and saxophonist/accordian player Kurt Hofmann of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. On Songs We Should Have Written, the ensemble brings together a mix of influential tracks, reworked in their own brash fashion.
Their raucous and unruly style suits many of the rock standards well in their rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” you can almost smell the whiskey on lead singer Tod A.’s voice; singer Jennifer Charles adds a swagger to Sonny and Cher’s dance-pop hit “The Beat Goes On.” However, reinterpreting some of modern music’s most popular anthems has its risks: Firewater unwittingly demonstrates that the gentle gospel track “This Little Heart of Mine” wasn’t meant to be an aggressive, guitar-driven song; and while the first half of “Paint It Black” stays true to the spirit of the Rolling Stones classic, it ultimately breaks down into an over-indulgent instrumental whirl of stretched-out squeals and sitars, losing much of the momentum of the original. However, the band is never timid in their approach, and the record as a whole is a heartening loveletter to the icons who helped shape Firewater’s rowdy and eclectic sound.
That said, part of the joy in listening to a new mix is the element of discovery and falling in love with a new song. Rough Trade’s compilation Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before… avoids the constant comparison to the original tracks by choosing songs that are lesser known. And with the 25-year-old label’s notable roster, the prominence of the covering band occasionally outshines that of the original artist-all of whom also happen to be on Rough Trade. The most well-known songs are the two Strokes tracks, “Is This It” and “Last Nite.” Royal City transforms the former into a lullaby, gently singing, “Can’t you see I’m trying / I don’t even like it / I just lie to getto your apartment” in a hushed, weary voice. Meanwhile, the female-fronted Detroit Cobras turn the latter into a zippy surf-rock ditty. Adam Green, in a nursery-rhyme-like voice, does a satisfying rendition of “Eating Noddemix” by Young Marble Giants. Mystic Chords of Memory does a sweet and strummy cover of Aztec Camera’s “We Could Send Letters.” “Just close your eyes again / Until these things get better /You’re never far away / We could send letters” they delicately sing. On the other hand, the record hits a sour note with The Fiery Furnaces’ discordant cover of “Winter,” by the Fall. Fortunately, the album quickly recovers with its slick closer, “Final Day” (also by Young Marble Giants), covered by Belle & Sebastian and set to a delightful club groove. Ultimately, Stop Me… is the compilation that is less reverential and more playful-and for this reason, it shines without the shadow of the past to get in the way.