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Firewater - International Orange

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Artist: Firewater

Album: International Orange

Label: Bloodshot

Review date: Sep. 28, 2012

Tod A. (it stands for Ashley), the frontman for Firewater (and one-time leader of Cop Shoot Cop), spent the interim between 2008’s Golden Hour and this year’s International Orange saving a rainforest in Cambodia and, later, setting up a permanent base in Istanbul. No longer living out of a backpack (as he was for Golden Hour), the peripatetic Ashley seems to have settled into a Middle Eastern-flavored groove.

His latest record, recorded against the backdrop of the Arab Spring and released on the anniversary of 9/11, plunges gleefully into a mash of influences: Anatolian zurna wails and Persian percussion, American jazz trombone slides and walking bass, Latin brass, ska-twitching upbeats and the rough-housing melodic punk of the early 1980s. Not since Strummer’s Global A Go Go have so many cultures been shoe-horned together in the service of politically-engaged pub rock.

Ashley works with some long-time collaborators. Tamir Muskat of Balkan Beat Box engineered the album and plays some percussion, while the same band’s Itamar Ziegler played bass and Uri Brauner Kinrot electric guitar. There is, as in the past, a noticeable Klezmer influence, via players like Nimord Talmon (trombone, melodica) and Adam Scheflan (bass). South Asia makes a cameo in the loops and dhol drumming of Bhangra-steeped Johnny Kalsi (who also plays in Afro Celt Sound System).

Ashley also dips deep into a thriving Turkish music scene. Cosar Kamçi of the Turkish psych band Baba Zula is on hand to play traditional percussion instruments: daf, darbouka, and tef. Ferdi Seçkin plays a Turkish wind instrument called a zurna, whose high nasal tones weave through “A Little Revolution.” Horns blare in every language, from Spanish bravado, to two-tone ska blats, to jazzy late night moans. And, then, of course, there is Tod A. himself, whose rough-hewn, raspy voice immediately recalls the glory days of reggae-influenced U.K. punk. (He sounds a good bit like Strummer, and also, at times, like gay punk pioneer Tom Robinson.)

The result is surprisingly cohesive and utterly engaging, a polyglot celebration of underdog resistance wherever it happens, all over the world. “A Little Revolution” follows a sinuous, Middle Eastern-into-East European guitar riff over dense syncopations of multiple drums. “Glitter Days” weaves an eerie zurna through caravan-swaying rhythms in hand-drum, shakers and Western kit. Even the most Western-sounding of tracks — cabaret-shuffling “Up from the Underground” for instance — have little third-world accents that knock them off-kilter in interesting, non-standard ways.

The lyrics are lefty sardonic, a wry take on worldwide recession, the collapse of materialism and the volatile positive energy of the Arab revolutions. All are serious subjects but don’t stop the party. Ashley is quite good at injecting political relevance without killing the beat. His jabs at Western complacency are sharpest and funniest in “Ex-Millionaire Mambo,” a slinky, timbale-banging strut through the post-credit crunch era that smirks, “It’s tough to be chic when you live in a cardboard box…jingles remind you your saving’s in your socks.” And yet, sad as it is to live in a box, the song is irrepressibly upbeat, full of giddy, squealing trumpet and satirically cutting trombone slides.

Tom Friedman once forecast a world that was hot, flat and crowded, where sweaty masses from every culture competed across national boundaries for increasingly scarce resources. International Orange gives this future a soundtrack, borrowing from many countries, mashing influences together in a fusion stew, celebrating a hemmed-in throng of humans in struggle. Who’d have thought it would be this much fun?

By Jennifer Kelly

Other Reviews of Firewater

The Man on the Burning Tightrope

Songs We Should Have Written

The Golden Hour

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View all articles by Jennifer Kelly

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