Joe Firstman: The War of Women

[23 February 2004]

By Jason MacNeil

Joe Firstman‘s first fling with a “buzz” occurred when music magazines and dailies, including Billboard, began singing his praises for his debut EP Wives Tales, which brought to mind Ryan Adams, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen. Firstman never really saw it as a benchmark, continuing instead to work on his debut full-length. Now, some months later and a few months after its release, Firstman is back with another credible piece of work. And while he might be seen as the Ed Harcourt for this side of the pond, Firstman brings a darker, more honest approach. The opening line from the opening tune “Introduction to the War of Women” is a perfect example—“And then she’d tell me that women are only as evil as you let them be”. Using his piano to create a lullaby world, Firstman is a tad too wordy early on, cramming some lyrics into a small amount of space.

Thankfully he lightens up and tends to rock out a bit more on the crunchy and meaty “Breaking All the Ground”. Containing just enough Southern soul, the tune soars à la the Black Crowes circa Amorica. It sets a great mood for the early portions of the record, with the 23-year-old musician setting things up perfectly. What makes it more intriguing, though, is Firstman opting for the full finale, giving himself and the song a proper sendoff. “Can’t Stop Loving You” glides along by adhering to a format that every decent Americana singer-songwriter can nail in his sleep. Coming off a bit like Counting Crows from the south, the song has a lot of barroom feel despite the quasi-slick production. Firstman sings it like he’s lived it, so that only adds to the luster. The same can be said for “Now You’re Gorgeous, Now You’re Gone”, an arena anthem Train has yet to find or write.

Not everything is wine and roses though, especially on “Car Door (Dancing to the Aisles)”, a country effort that takes a bit too long to find its footing. By the chorus it starts to come to fruition, but there are a couple of snags getting there. Firstman’s delivery for most of the album is one of the highlights, making this clunker just passable. “If you don’t steal all the damn covers, you’re gonna be all right with me”, he sings on the outro. The singer-songwriter milieu is touched on with the melancholic, slice of life piece found during “Saving All the Love”. While it might be cheesy in areas, especially with the bland strings after the chorus, there isn’t too much wrong or horrid here. In fact, he’s more Springsteen than Rob Thomas. Oh, and completely ignore or skip the ensuing patio pleasing “Slave or Siren”, the tune is formulaic and tries much to hard to “rock”.

The middle portion of the record includes “Chasing You Down” and a very laid-back “The Adventures of the Empress of Harlem and the Amazing Subway Boy”, “Subway” being the transportation we hope, not the sandwich shop! It’s as if John Mayer quit playing guitar and picked up piano, as Firstman gives that impression from start to finish. It sounds like darker songs are his niche, particularly the somber rainy-day “Lies”, complete with some fine guitar work from producer Rick Parker and harmonies from Miranda Lee Richards. “Beautiful” brings a bit of filler to the proceedings, but with 15 songs (and a hidden bonus tune) you’re bound to get a few sub-par performances. “Secondhand Grave” is a rousing track despite Firstman taking it down to a slow and sorrow-riddled jazzy coda with saxophone. Firstman keeps it together for the minimal and pretty “Savannah”. “I’ve been strangled by these songs”, he sings. Thankfully, the album isn’t anywhere near a choker.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/firstmanjoe-war/