25 May, 2008

Classically Elemental

The Ancient Greeks believed in four (sometimes five) "elements" that together composed everything on Earth. Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and the sometimes included fifth "element" Idea. (The Greeks did not invent Captain Planet, but you can definitely see how they influenced that cartoon.) These "elements" are a far cry from the modern day periodic table, but they are also - in a simplistic way - perfect for describing the properties that make up everything in the world.

With this in mind, I'll introduce you to Firewater. They're a band from NYC that has released six albums, the most recent being The Golden Hour. Multiculturalism is a major theme, with Bhangra and Klezmer music constantly pulsing influences in the background. Swing and ska and dirty jazz can also be found throughout the thirteen songs on The Golden Hour.

In many ways, Firewater reminds me of the Clash. Not so much the early stuff, but the more creative music. Let's say London Calling through Sandanista to Combat Rock. Out of necessity and through the wonders of globalization, Firewater has more sounds to work with, but the central elements remain the same as the Clash. The bands share an openness and experimentation that prevents their sound from becoming stale, a certain obvious disdain for the powers that be, and a powerful certainty and sense of self that is missing in many bands. There are bands making music who have no personality whatsoever; others have personality that is so incredibly dynamic it will change completely from one album to the next. What set the Clash apart - what I think could set Firewater apart - was its ability to capture the feeling of the time, invoking that defining personality without becoming a slave to the feeling.

So it is that I can listen to London Calling and feel the grit, and anger, and violence and the overwhelming spirit of revolution. I can feel the craving to break from tradition and embrace a greater world. In The Golden Hour that craving is not quite so incessant. The energy and wanderlust are present, but they are being dimmed to some extent by the opportunities that are more readily available for inter-cultural exploration. Thirty years ago, if I had wanted to listen to Fela Kuti, I probably would have had to go to a city to find a record store that stocked his music. Similarly, if I had wanted to share my love for afro-beat with others, I would have been hard-pressed to find another fan my age in small-town suburban New England. Today, I can listen to Kuti's music on iTunes, track down similar artists at Allmusic, explore their Myspaces and band websites, and discuss their sounds in a plethora of chat rooms across the internet. Obviously the pressures that bore down on Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, and Mick Jones are different from those that bear down on the young adults of the 21st century, but the "elements" used for expressing those pressures are basically the same. We still have plenty of angry young men (and women) smashing guitars and singing about "getting out" (if this weren't the case, then why would emo music be so incredibly popular?). We also have artists (like the Clash) who channel that anger into something something exceptional. At the same time though, the world has grown in our minds and so have the possible places to escape to, the objects of our adventurous obsession.

"Borneo" is the first song on The Golden Hour, and although it reminds me more of The Brian Setzer Orchestra and Squirrel Nut Zippers' contemporary swing music than something particularly Indonesian, it also references experiences that are far from the 1940s kosher feeling that Setzer's music invokes. One lyric finds the vocalist aspiring to "swing like an ape from a Banyan tree" which sounds like fun to me. "This Is My Life" pulls in Klezmer and Bhangra beats behind bluesy lyrics. The vocalist sounds more resigned than angry, when he gasps his counter-culture sentiments on this song, but "Electric City" has a different feeling, an acuteness of lyric that is closer to pure ska and punk music. "Already Gone" has a dramatic backing track that sounds fitting for an early film noir, while the song itself carries the sentiment of a well-written "screw you". "A Place Not So Unkind" describes a wasteland world that is dark and desperate, but also fairly surreal. "Three Legged Dog" finishes the album with a yowling, growling sound that sings rebellion with a side of New York sophistication.

I won't say that Firewater has reached the status of the Clash. Their music is not yet as universal as the Clash's music became, and their sound is still being fine-tuned. I do believe that the band has many of the right elements working in its favor. If channeled correctly, these elements could define the sound of our times. A music that easily flows from one cultural reference to another, while expressing the loneliness and anger that are still prevalent emotions in our larger and more connected world. Frustration with governing bodies has not really waned since the days when Strummer and Jones wrote "Clampdown", and violence has only moved closer to home since Simonon penned "The Guns of Brixton", but music is still a great filter for viewing our problems and a great medium for expressing our frustrations. We just need a band with vision to capture the sentiment of the times, and play the music that everyone needs to hear.

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