Firewater: The Man on the Burning Tightrope

Andrew Gilstrap


The Man on the Burning Tightrope

Label: Jetset
US Release Date: 2003-06-17
UK Release Date: Available as import

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.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.