Few bands lurking in the shadow of Tom Waits seem to have what it takes to escape that influence. Sure, you immediately set yourself apart when you start using circus melodies, found percussion, and vocals just this side of tuberculosis, but you still have to find some way to make it uniquely your own. Firewater are one of the few bands at peace with this harsh reality; ex Cop Shoot Cop bassist Tod A.‘s lurching, phlegmatic vocals definitely stagger away from the influence of records like Rain Dogs or Swordfishtrombone and the band’s ability to stake out turf on the outskirts of a circus from your worst flashback is astounding, but the band has its own aesthetic that quickly gets past such obvious influences.
The band’s pinnacle, at least to these ears, is probably still 1998’s The Ponzi Scheme, which sounded like a bunch of Fellini-esque gnomes setting a season of The Sopranos to song. The Man on the Burning Tightrope, though, comes close—its qualities just aren’t as obvious. The arrangements are more straightforward and less noirish; in fact, a first listen lends itself to dismissing the record as a pale shadow of The Ponzi Scheme, but still one that’s far better than 2001’s disappointing Psychopharmacology. This time, Firewater seem to truly believe the devil is in the details, and after a few listens, the Klezmer strains, castanets, and slurred chants start to coalesce.
As the title fully indicates, the circus is all over The Man on the Burning Tightrope. Firewater’s music has always had a touch of Cirque de Soleil gone over to the dark side, but it’s never seemed gimmicky. That’s especially true here. Naturally, the title track has all the dramatic tension one would expect of its imagery, but “Too Many Angels” swings on trapezes of big top organ tones, and “The Dog and Pony Show” weaves around you like a carnival barker with sinister intentions. Overall, though, the circus sounds and imagery act as punctuation for everything else going on throughout the record.
It’s after a few listens that you realize worldly rhythms fill nearly every nook and cranny of The Man on the Burning Tightrope. “The Dog and Pony Show” works itself into a Klezmer lather, and “Too Much (Is Never Enough)” sounds like it should be coming out of some South American cantina. “Dark Days Indeed” uses castanets to launch into a forceful tango, while “Ponzi’s Revenge” comes across like a mix of the Dragnet theme song and a Tito Puente workout. Admittedly, The Man on the Burning Tightrope isn’t going to burn up the world music charts, but Firewater’s pursuit of crime-laced grooves finds them realizing that every genre has something to offer. The Ponzi Scheme may have made you feel like you were in the heart of some film noir fantasy, but The Man on the Burning Tightrope adds tons of additional shadows to that already effective approach.
A few songs, like “Secret”, “Don’t Make It Stop”, or “The Song that Saved My Life” are more conventional, which was the unfortunate rule instead of the exception on Psychopharmacology. Here, the straightforward guitar blasts or strings serve as a respite from the band’s dark, swirling depths in the same way as the more obvious circus sounds. It’s a record with good balance, and once it gets a listen that’s free of Ponzi Scheme-fostered expectations, it really stands on its own. Firewater sits somewhere between Tom Waits and the Pogues, but they’re not a carbon copy of either; with The Man on the Burning Tightrope, they show they have a clear vision of where they’re going. If their influences don’t recede completely into the distance, at least the band still covers an impressive amount of ground.