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Firewater - The Man on the Burning Tightrope

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Artist: Firewater

Album: The Man on the Burning Tightrope

Label: Jetset

Review date: Jul. 17, 2003

Make the Devil Dance For You

The latest outing from Tod A. and his group of misfits continues the Firewater tradition of combining esoteric sounds and instruments with rock sensibilities and perhaps the most cynical lyrical outlook currently available. The closest description might be if a bunch of gypsies joined a carnival and picked up a set of rock instruments. Make their leader a misanthropic poet with a closet full of axes to grind, and you're on the right track. Who knows how Tod moved from the industrial-edged Cop Shoot Cop to this, but what's remarkable is that his ultimately dark worldview survived the transition with all of its bite intact.

After the brief "Fanfare" introduces the album with a circus horn-section, "Anything At All" kicks in with a piano and drum rhythm. Tod's smoke-ravaged vocals somehow lend sarcasm to the simplest phrases, here speaking from the point of view of a man with nothing at all to give even if he wanted to do so. The song is all sharp guitar interjections, eerie keyboard counterpoint, and crashing drums, one of the album's strongest.

"Too Much (Is Never Enough)" seems deceptively upbeat, with rolling piano and brush-played drums. A closer listen to the lyrics, however, will uncover the music's sinister underpinnings, just as the guitar starts to push its distortion-lined textures into your ears. With a slower, more dramatic feel, "Too Many Angels" opens spaciously, with a waltz-like rhythm and a carnival guitar/organ wheeze. The hard-luck story is sung in Tod's classic whiskey drawl, a who-cares-it's-all-shit-anyway voice.

A gypsy outing complete with accordion and castanets, "Dark Days Indeed" boasts a particularly memorable melody and lyrics like, "I made the devil dance for me / And spat into his eye" and "Here's to Hell, and Hallelujah / Take this rock and shake it 'til it bleeds". Can't resist sentiments like that, nor the pure circus-drenched drama of the title track's calliope and chanted vocal story.

"The Truth Hurts" and its partner "Secret" are rather different. The former is simply a minute or so of a desperate answering machine recording, which ends up with a jazzy soundtrack in the background. It segues smoothly into the startling acoustic guitar strum of "Secret," with the answering machine message continuing as a preface and coda to Tod's vocals: "Everybody talks / But nobody understands / And everyone takes / Just as much as they can."

Following, we get the finger-snapping noir of "The Vegas Strip," complete with horns, piano and sordid "Devil to pay" lyrics; and the return-to-rock of "Don't Make it Stop," a relatively straight-forward tune with blatting horns and slicing distorted guitar in the chorus. These are both fine songs, but they lack the distinctiveness found elsewhere on The Man on the Burning Tightrope.

Towards the end, "The Dog & Pony Show" is a dramatic, oompah rhythm-driven piano tune, "The Song that Saved My Life" is short and slow, led by delicate guitar picking. It surprises with its prettiness and the heartfelt vocals, especially when the strings come in. Rather nice.

By the time "Before the Fall" arrives, we've been dragged through the mud and carried atop the mountain, and we're ready for the finale – an instrumental downward spiral of cascading, carnivalesque sounds, xylophones and horns. The story's over, and it's time to start the grimy, gritty drama again, because you know it never ends. The thing is, we prefer it that way when it sounds this good and the tale is told so well.

By Mason Jones

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