Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #563:
Firewater – The Ponzi Scheme
A pre-millennial concept album about the deadly consequences of capitalist excess: the personal as political taken to a stunningly prophetic extreme. Fiery art-punks Firewater get extra props for spawning both Balkan Beat Box and Botanica, groups they heavily influenced. This 1998 release is intense and brilliantly lyrical all the way through, along with a couple of evilly cartoonish Balkan brass instrumental romps. The gypsy barroom rock of Green Light comments on the perils of chasing the almighty dollar, “going down like a pederast in a boys school;” Dropping Like Flies sounds like the Damned on a literate gypsy rampage. Caroline cruelly chronicles a girl who “starved herself of everything that money couldn’t buy,” while the noir piano boogie Whistling in the Dark reminds that you can only live on borrowed time for so long. There’s also Isle of Dogs, a snarling, spot-on hypocrite’s tale fueled by Oren Kaplan’s reverb guitar; the twisted tango Another Perfect Catastrophe; the savagely mocking So Long Superman, essentially a punk rock remake of Tainted Love; I Still Love You Judas, proof positive that there really is no honor among thieves; Knock Em Down, a savagely sarcastic noir cabaret tune, and the potent concluding song, Drunkard’s Lament, a searing look at the psychology of spectacles like reality tv a few years before it existed: “Misery loves company, that’s why everybody loves me.” Firewater frontman Tod A. has kept the band alive over the years with a shifting cast of characters, slowly moving further away from rock toward the East, with excellent results. The whole album is streaming at Spotify (you haven’t signed up for Spotify yet? You must – you get six months of unlimited streaming before the service turns into last.fm and becomes just another useless pay-radio site); here’s a random torrent via Cosmo Zebra.
Martin Bisi’s indie cred is without question: his resume as a producer includes the Dresden Dolls, Sonic Youth, Live Skull and Black Fortress of Opium, to name just a few of the best. Yet his greatest achievements have been not behind the board but as a songwriter and bandleader. This download-only ep (it’s up at itunes and Contraphonic’s very easily negotiable site) impressively captures the freewheeling noir intensity, out-of-the-box imagination and counterintuitivity that come out so strongly at his live shows. The album features welcome contributions from a like-minded cast of characters, Bisi’s old 80s pal Bill Laswell as well as members of the Dresden Dolls, Balkan Beat Box, World Inferno and drummer Bob D’amico of the Fiery Furnaces.
The opening cut Drink Your Wine is basically punk Motown in the same vein as the Clash’s Hitsville UK with layers of the guy/girl vocals that have come to typify Bisi’s recent work along with a characteristically sardonic lyrical sensibility: “Drink your wine and don’t be silly,” Bisi admonishes: he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Building from a dusky noir intro, disembodied vocals rising over bass chords, Rise Up Cowboy explodes into a pounding art-rock anthem laden with dynamic shifts, layers of evil psychedelic guitar glimmering in the background, Bisi doing an impressive job as Peter Murphy-style frontman. The Damned only wish they could have sounded this apprehensive and ominous.
Mile High – Formaldehyde blends early 90s style Lower East Side noir blues with careening Firewater/Botanica style gypsy punk, propelled by the Dresden Doll’s Brian Viglione on drums. Its companion track Mile High – Apple of My Eye, with Laswell on bass, is a study in contrast, sultry and pulsing, something akin to New Order as done by early Ministry. It’s a vividly sisterly approximation of the previous cut’s menace, which is particularly appropriate in that it was inspired by Bisi’s daughter. With its clever layers of vocals, the final cut, the title track recalls the off-the-rails psychedelic eeriness of Bisi’s previous album Sirens of the Apocalyse (very favorably reviewed here). Essential listening for fans of dark imaginative rock: Bisi has several midwest and New England live dates coming up. You’ll see this on our Best Albums of 2009 list at the end of the year – not bad for a little five-song ep.