Tod A: Expatriate games

... or, how I learned to stop sulking and love Firewater

Prior to the release of The Golden Hour this year on Bloodshot Records, I wasn't convinced that Firewater was worthy of my attention. I'd fallen out with the group's first full-length — Get Off the Cross, We Need the Wood for the Fire -- in 1996, and ever since Firewater struck me as a weak extension of singer, bass player and principal songwriter Tod A's previous band, Cop Shoot Cop. But The Golden Hour, Firewater's sixth full-length, reinvents the group, not by relying on the black humor and head-pummeling dirges of Cop Shoot Cop, but by leaving the country to find inspiration.

Actually, to compare the two bands is unfair. I first encountered Cop Shoot Cop in the summer of '92. It was the shallow end of an era now stamped in time by Spin magazine's adage, "The Year Grunge Broke."

Radio-friendly chumps such as Candlebox, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam had neutered the grunge scene, and Cop Shoot Cop was as fed up with Seattle as I was at the time.

The five-piece outfit commanded an arsenal of drums, pots and pans, sheet metal, and other percussive objects, flanked by keyboards and guitars. Tod A's sneering, cigarette-damaged jeer gave a clever but jaded human voice to a rumble of bass-heavy rhythms, sound bytes from "The Twilight Zone" and satanic mantras. It created an addictive rhythmic quality, and the music was simultaneously scary and funny.

The group methodically hacked apart punk, industrial, no wave, blues, jazz and even classic rock, only to reassemble them with a Frankenstein skulk. Albums, such as '93's Ask Questions Later and '94's Release took shape as refreshing assaults on indie rock. But the group's sense of humor was too dark for most and the band quietly fizzled out.

Two years later, Tod returned with Firewater. Suddenly, the bleak aspects of Cop Shoot Cop were stripped away and replaced with awkward bouts of Klezmer music and a more mature tone.

Firewater felt like a concerted effort to refine Tod's approach to songwriting by taking a step away from CSC's brutish tendencies. But the new direction never packed a punch. After repeated listens to every new Firewater release, I always found myself returning to those old Cop Shoot Cop albums to get my fix.

So how did Tod win me back after I dismissed his group so many years ago?

He dropped out of George W.'s bush (America) and embarked on an expatriate's global trek to such far-away and exotic places as Istanbul, Calcutta and Bali, where he's currently based. The change of scenery served him well.

The results of his travels culminate in a worldly mashup of Indian and Pakistani sounds that shake up his heretofore down-and-out NYC grumble. The Golden Hour is the album I demanded from Firewater for more than a decade, but had given up hope of ever hearing. It's a collection of worldly and revolutionary pop songs that captures the energy of Cop Shoot Cop while fleshing out a brighter life of its own.

Songs such as "Borneo," "Hey Clown" and "Three Legged Dog" are imbued with smart venom and an edgy lyrical drive that kicks at the pricks who govern both America's pop culture and its people. The songs are compelling without pandering to my angsty teenage fetish for Cop Shoot Cop. Tod sounds political without preaching, but it's clear he's fed up.

"It was inspired by being sick of participating and paying taxes here and feeling like I was living in a place where the government was not representing me," he says. "I wanted to go to these places and be a one-man ambassador and meet people and say that not all Americans are war-mongering idiots."

Back in the States – where he's traveling across the country and will make his way to Atlanta to celebrate the record-release party for The Golden Hour at The Earl on Saturday, June 14 – Tod takes my criticisms well. Apparently, a lot of CSC fans didn't make the jump to Firewater, he explains.

"Cop Shoot Cop was great while it lasted, but we had reached the limit of what we could do," he says without hesitation. "I couldn't fake it."

Sometimes the albums that stick with you are the ones that take the longest to appreciate. For me, it took six Firewater albums before I heard something worth longing after. Now that I've come to appreciate the The Golden Hour, the five previous Firewater albums glow with a renewed light.

As a younger man I didn't have the appreciation for the art of songwriting that I have developed as a thirtysomething music journalist. I am duty-bound to champion artists such as Gram Parsons and Bonnie "Prince" Billy, whose names are synonymous with the craft. But for my money, Tod A is an underappreciated innovator of the art who is worthy of just as much praise. Twelve years after dismissing Firewater, I can still wax intellectual about the band, and sing Tod A's praises for sticking to his guns instead of pandering to my sniveling need for nostalgia.

Convincing me of that was not an easy task. Not for me, and not for Tod.