Songs We Should Have Written
here was a time when the whole idea of the “cover song” as a discrete phenomenon was ridiculous. The real flourishing of that period was mostly pre-Beatles of course, so it tends to get kind of glossed over when discussing the modern covers record. But there was a time when a record like Songs We Should Have Written would have had a less self-conscious title and would have been merely another album. One of the reasons, I’d argue, that artists like Johnny Cash were able to so completely inhabit other peoples’ songs is because Cash dates back to this era. Sure, the other reason was because Cash was one of the finest artists in the history of Western popular music, but he also had the conceptual background so that for him it was just natural to make someone else’s song your own, to treat it with the same mixture of reverence and necessary contempt it takes to find the best treatment of your own songs.
Which, to get back to the record at hand here, is what makes Firewater’s cover of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ so off-putting: they don’t even attempt to make it their own. Aside from the casual arrogance of the album title (there’s a world of difference, of course, between “wished we’d written” and “should have written”), aside from Tod A.’s horrible affected quasi-twang that I’m sure is meant sincerely but comes off as good ol’ boy mockery, we have a re-working of a song that, unlike any other song here, feels dreadfully unnecessary. Here we have the kind of meaningless changes (stretching it out to nearly five minutes, adding a queasy keyboard line) and thoughtless reverence that bleaches all of the emotional resonance a song as good and as multi-hued as ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ can have.
But in the context of the rest of Songs We Should Have Written, thankfully, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ becomes easily forgivable. After listening to the whole collection, the title takes on a kind of ruefulness instead of conceit, and Firewater’s love for these songs shines through. I should be clear about something here; to fulfill my entirely vague dictum that a good cover version is one in which the covering artist “makes it their own” does not necessarily mean that they radically alter it (although that can work too). Firewater’s treatment of the mighty ‘Paint It, Black’, for example, doesn’t do anything more radical that stretching it out into a hazy cloud of menace, slowly mounting into the ending sitar-led instrumental fury. This is, of course a tactic the Rolling Stones themselves sometimes employed, but it works especially well for Firewater, rendering the song both more mystical and death-haunted (“like a newborn baby, it just happens every day”; credit to Marcello Carlin for pointing out this aspect of the song a while back) and giving their version its own stamp.
It’s on tracks like ‘Paint It, Black’ and Firewater’s explicitly druggy, sinister take on ‘The Beat Goes On’ (using only elements found in the original; the great driving guitar part, Jennifer Charles drawling out “Drums keep pounding a rhythm to the brain”) that Songs We Should Have Written really shines. Some of the songs are extremely well chosen, from Tod A.’s mocking, fearless take on the old Peggy Lee favorite ‘Is That All There Is?’ (“Is that all there is to a fire?”, as if he could walk through it unscathed) to a raucous updating of minor Beatles tune ‘Hey Bulldog’, more vital here than it ever was on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, especially as Lennon’s nasty “What makes you think you’re something special when you smile?” finally gets a proper delivery.
The other highlights are a spectral, plainspoken version of Tom Waits’ great ‘Diamonds And Gold’ (thankfully free of any vocal aping from A.) and a version of Lee Hazlewood’s immortal ‘Some Velvet Morning’ that makes good use of Charles. The section where they crosscut between the sepulchral A. and the flanged Charles, two characters in a story that never meet, backed by waltz-time organ, is a thing of strange beauty. It doesn’t quite match Primal Scream’s amazing take on the song (which strips out the verses and leaves Phaedra as a nature spirit trapped in an inexorable machine), but is similar in that both emphasize just how supernatural the song is.
That’s only just over half of the album, however. The remaining tracks range from the pleasant but unremarkable (ska instrumental ‘Storm Warning’, requisite oldie ‘This Little Light Of Mine’, a quiescent version of Robyn Hitchcock’s ‘I Often Dream Of Trains’ that works well as a closer) to the ill-chosen (‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and the other Hazlewood song, the overly dramatic ‘This Town’, being the main offenders). It’s hard to quibble with the few skippable tracks when the other songs on offer here are so well done, though
Ultimately, when you have a band like Firewater who normally perform their own songs, a cover collection like this becomes less about the band and more about the relation to the songs they choose. A few missteps here aside, Songs We Should Have Written acquits itself on those grounds quite admirably. Both Firewater and the originators of these songs have every reason to be proud of the versions found here.
Reviewed by: Ian Mathers
Reviewed on: 2004-01-28