Monday, March 24, 2008

International Punk

My memories of Cop Shoot Cop (yes, a band, not a badly written newspaper headline) are not positive ones. I recall a couple vocalists who yelped more than sang, a distinct lack of melody, and a series of confrontational songs. White Noise was the name of the album I heard, and that was pretty accurate. One could listen to a jackhammer breaking up the pavement or one could listen to Cop Shoot Cop.

Bassist Todd A., one of the principle yelpers, left the police academy twelve years ago to embark on a relentlessly eclectic exploration of world music. His first solo album under the Firewater moniker, 1996’s Get Off the Cross, We Need the Wood, was an immediately breathtaking affair, equal parts Tom Waits seedy cabaret and gypsy wedding party, and predates indie rock’s current obsession with all things Balkan (see Beirut, Gogol Bordello, Balkan Beat Box) by a good decade. Subsequent albums have explored Bollywood, klezmer music, and Big Top circus sounds.

Naturally, Firewater’s new album The Golden Hour (out May 6th on Bloodshot Records) sounds like nothing that has come before it. Newly divorced and disgruntled by George W. Bush’s re-election, Todd left New York in 2005 with a backpack, his laptop, and the clothes on his back. The ensuing three-year hejira/debauch through India, the Punjab, Pakistan, and parts of Afghanistan and Turkey is fully chronicled on the new album. Setting up shop wherever he could find willing musicians, recording at times around tribal campfires, Todd provided the songs and the punk attitude, native musicians provided the accompaniment, and a single microphone and a laptop provided the recording studio. The results are endlessly fascinating and disturbing; a man at the end of his rope, rootless, and without hope, howling at the moon, and leading the locals through a nihilist hoedown. Singing about his divorce and the unraveling of normality, Todd yelps “This is no joke/This is my life.” You tend to believe him. Normal must have been a long time ago. Along the three-year trek he was drugged, beaten, robbed, and almost died of a mysterious intestinal illness “I was forced,” he says, “to end my trip at the Khyber Pass on the Afghan border, due to general ill health and the unnerving likelihood of kidnapping.”

The Golden Hour is not pleasant listening, but it comes close to being essential listening. It’s a superb, disturbing slab of desperation and creativity.

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