There’s a circle of Hell reserved for music lovers that consists of nothing but bad covers of good songs. At first, seemingly harmless choices like Metallica’s “Turn the Page” and Hootie & the Blowfish’s “Hey Hey What Can I Do?” nip at your heels as mild annoyances — cute, even, in a Tim Burtonish kind of way. It’s when you delve deeper that you come across misshapen horrors like William Shatner’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”, Pat Boone’s “Tutti Frutti” (we won’t even get into the special place his In a Metal Mood album occupies), and the entire wing devoted to “Mustang Sally”. The Devil might have the best tunes, but he doesn’t let the bad ones go to waste, either.
For all the artistic peril a single cover version holds, the covers record is a special beast that can go wrong in so many special ways. A band’s renditions of favorites can be so faithful and unimaginative that the project raises only one question: “Why bother?” Egos can so pollute the proceedings that previously enjoyable songs are sacrificed on the altar of self-aggrandizement. Heck, sometimes the songs are perfect in every way to begin with, and attempts to redo them are as much an insult as anything else. Rarely is it clear, anyway, what a band’s intentions are: are they being serious? tongue-in-cheek? scornful? With such confusion poised to spill from any cover version, it’s usually best to offer bands the benefit of the doubt until they tip their hand one way or the other.
Firewater’s contribution seems to be from the standpoint of sincere appreciation, although the title leaves some room to haggle. It’s not Songs We Wish We’d Written, but Songs We Should Have Written. Are Firewater implying that if they’d written these cuts to begin with, that the “Firewater originals” would automatically be superior? Not really — vocalist Tod A.’s liner notes make clear that Firewater see the chosen songs as kindred spirits to Firewater’s idiosyncratic catalog. Besides, anyone who honestly thinks they can improve “Folsom Prison Blues” should just sign up for a lobotomy and a one-way ticket to a secluded place where they can’t bother anyone with such crazy talk.
So the Firewater guys cast 11 of their favorites in their gritty carnival-tinted mold, with varying degrees of success. The least surprising triumph is the band’s take on Tom Waits’s “Diamonds and Gold”. Firewater ratchet up the clanking Rain Dogs vibe a notch or two, and it sounds very much like Waits himself revisiting the song. That’s a safe play for Firewater, though — their noir-flavored alternative sound has always owed a huge debt to Waits’s gutbucket blues anyway. More daring is their take on “Folsom Prison”, stripping it of all similarity to the Johnny Cash classic. Gone is the seemingly sacred guitar twang; in its place are a keening lead guitar line, lingering blasts of fuzzy rhythm, and wheezy calliope. It’s an interesting angle, but it won’t make you pack up your copy of the original. Likewise, the Stones’ “Paint It Black” is probably best left up to the personal tastes. Enlisting a cadre of authentic Indian musicians (which is a really nice touch, especially in the extended coda), Firewater shove a few downers down the song’s throat to counter the original version’s adrenaline-fueled fire. To these ears, it drags, but it might be right up someone else’s alley.
As for their inspired choice of “This Little Light of Mine”? It’s probably best to quote Tod A.’s liner note: “Nobody seems to know who wrote this song. Or maybe nobody is willing to own up to it. But I remember being forced to sing it in 1st or 2nd grade music class. Ah, sweet revenge. Although some might find it odd that a bunch of avowed atheists would cover a song best known for being a favorite at Christian campfire singalongs, I always thought of this song as a secret ode to pyromania”. With its heavy drumbeat, wobbly vocals, and piercing guitar, Firewater’s ramshackle version is just as playfully belligerent as you’d expect.
Their take on Sinatra’s chestnut “This Town” removes all the swing in favor of cataloguing the city’s gritty mean streets — a nice touch. Their rendition of Lyn Taitt & the Comets’ reggae hit “Storm Warning” sounds like a long lost jam between Dick Dale and Camper Van Beethoven. The Beatles’ “Hey Bulldog” is a surprisingly nice fit for Firewater’s style: loud, bouncy, and sneering. On the other hand, Tod A. and company also do a nice job of keeping the woozy dreamlike quality so essential to Robyn Hitchcock’s “I Often Dream of Trains”.
So in the grand scheme of things, where does Songs We Should Have Written fit in? Well, nothing here ascends to the rarefied air of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” or Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” — covers where the artists paying tribute made the songs their own. However, Firewater don’t have to worry about their effort being overshadowed by Duran Duran’s Thank You, either. Probably best to say that Songs We Should Have Written floats in a pleasant limbo. For the most part, Firewater pay fitting homage to their influences, and have quite a bit of fun in the process; in the end, though, Songs We Should Have Written is simply an entertaining diversion.