Firewater Fizzles, Doesn't Burn
It’s difficult for leftist firebrands when a progressive politician wins a major electoral victory. Liberalism is built on an often oppositional mindset and it’s hard for someone to either start opposing those they used to support or else defending the powers that be. Some activists deal with this by shining a light on ills that persist even during liberal administrations (think Ted Leo or Fucked Up). Some deal with this by becoming somewhat-reluctant cheerleaders for the idea of incremental change (think Billy Bragg or Bruce Springsteen). Others, apparently, decide to invent their own demons and scenarios with little direct bearing on reality to rail against. On their seventh studio album (second for Bloodshot Records), International Orange!, Firewater has apparently decided to go the third route.
Lead singer and driving force behind the band, Tod A recorded this album in the midst of the social and political upheavals of the Arab Spring. All around him old regimes are falling like dominoes, with America stepping in and supporting peoples’ revolutions in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya with words and sometimes weapons, while in places like the United Arab Emirates and Syria, America continued offering tacit or open support to similarly brutal leaders. An American expat such as he needed only look outside his window or turn on Al-Jazeera to find genuine inspiration for grassroots democracy or bitter disappointment flowing from his own government. Amidst this sea of truly historical events, with its swirl of hopefulness and despair, freedom and repression, one would think that there would be plenty of fodder for some bluntly challenging and searingly relevant songs. Unfortunately, there is nothing like that to be found on this record.
These songs lack any specificity of insight about the current moment or, failing that, any sort of timeless relatability that could transcend the day’s events. Instead we’re just left with boilerplate laments about hard times and vague warnings aimed at a generic “them” from an equally unspecific “us”. For example, “Ex-Millionaire Mambo” starts with Tod A describing himself as “drunk as the Pope on a hot afternoon”, a description that seems equal part lazy swipe and puzzling non sequitur, before moving on to a listless story punctuated intermittently by lively yelps of “MAMBO!”. Elsewhere, “The Monkey Song” features a chorus just about as moronic as you would imagine from the title and an inexplicable faux-50’s talk show host introducing the track and predicting (incorrectly, in my case) that will listener would enjoy the song so much as to demand an immediate repeat listen.
I don’t know who the enemy is supposed to be on International Orange!, nor, I suspect, does Tod A, as he goes repeatedly to a well of hackneyed images and barely-sketched stereotypes that would make Michael Bay’s script editor blush. I’m usually not a fan of quoting lyrics out of context to show their flaccidness because it can be a cheap trick (you could make the Beatles look like blabbering idiots that way) but the clunkers here come so fast and furious and sound just as flat and they read that a brief sampling is instructive. Some particularly cringe-inducing snippets include, “your day is a trainwreck / your night is a prison full of ghosts”, “it can never be a funeral when you’re in your birthday suit” and “you can shut us up / but you can’t shut us down”. A few sentences after that last gem, Tod A starts talking about Molotov cocktails, by which time one assumes that all but the truly committed and/or freshly dredlocked international relations majors have tuned out.
International Orange!, like previous Firewater records, was recorded with a global cast, peppering songs with multicultural musical flavor. The added instruments do occasionally provide color and punch to some songs, such as the blustery horns on “A Little Revolution” or the Latin guitar and lively bongos on “Ex-Millionaire Mambo “. But more often than not, it feels like the instruments were there more to provide internationalist color to fairly traditional pop/rock song structures than as an act of genuine collaboration. The ghost of Joe Strummer seems to haunt this record, and one can’t help but think of his later experimentation with the Clash as well his work on Earthquake Weather and with the Mescalaros as prime examples of successful international collaboration and synthesis of angry western protest rock with second and third-world musical traditions. While listening to International Orange!, one keeps hoping for the sonic daring or pointed insight of songs like “Straight To Hell” or “Johnny Appleseed”, but the closest we end up getting is the tepid and overwrought reworking of “Know Your Rights” into a laughable western in “Dead Man’s Boots”.
The most successful song on the album is the final one. Unsurprisingly its approach is nothing like the rest of the album. Bloodshot has been proudly touting Firewater’s broad palate of musical influences and stringently political lyrics. However, on “The Bonney Anne”, Tod A yields his strongest results by eschewing both of those approaches. It’s a slow dirge, sung with genuine pathos to a lost love about an old ship. At one point during the song, he prefaces a verse by saying, “after all this cheap suspense / and torture by degrees”, which is an all-too fitting description of the past 40 minutes of music. Finally, here at the end, Tod A puts the pieces together with lyrics that are wistful and evocative without ever beating the listener over the head with their message while the band plays with a light but deft touch, giving just enough accents to the music to conjure up the aura of nautical drama. It’s a hopeful ending to a disappointing album that finds Firewater burning with ambition but fizzling in their execution.