Following the over-thought, overwrought carnival that was The Man on the Burning Tightrope, Firewater's covers album, Songs We Should Have Written sounds fresh, and perhaps paradoxically, more like Firewater than the band's previous album did. While the songs and artists the group chose to cover don't exactly trace their influences -- circus music and at least a couple of traditional Eastern European instrumentals would have to be added to even begin to be complete -- it's clear that the mix of alienation, sardonic humor, righteous anger, and occasional moments of beauty in these songs make them Firewater's spiritual forebears. On songs like Sonny & Cher's "The Beat Goes On," which features longtime collaborator Jennifer Charles of the Elysian Fields as Cher to Tod A.'s Sonny, the band strike a good balance of being faithful to the original version of the song and bringing their own identity to it (and manage to transcend the dated quality of lyrics like "the miniskirt's the latest thing" to boot). And the version of "Diamonds and Gold" by Tom Waits -- whose music is a direct influence on Firewater's -- emphasizes his famously skeletal percussion, but also brings in gypsy violins to give the song more color. Firewater also tackles some more dramatically different covers, including "Folsom Prison Blues," which the band strips down to little more than a sneer, some doomy organs and guitars; it's a welcome homage to the "Man in Black" that pays tribute to him without aping Cash outright. The version of Frank Sinatra's "This Town" also highlights a noir direction that also pops up on some of the album's other standout tracks. Chief among them is the largely spoken word version of "Is That All There Is?" Tod A.'s speaking voice is just as compelling as his singing voice, and his delivery, which suggests an internal monologue, or perhaps a particularly theatrical session with a shrink, is so good that the possibility of an acting career doesn't seem out of the question; musically, the song is reminiscent of the funniest, most chilling moments on Psychopharmacology. The acerbic wordplay and sing-song melody of "Hey Bulldog" also work well in Firewater's hands, and conversely, the languid lyricism of Robyn Hitchcock's "I Often Dream of Trains" doesn't seem like an instant match for the band, but it makes a fine closing track. Not all of Songs We Should Have Written is entirely successful: the cover of "This Little Light of Mine," which is arguably the song on which Firewater imprinted the most of their own musical style, sounds lumbering and is a little too heavy-handed in its irony. The covers of "Some Velvet Morning" and "Paint It Black" are also slight failures, albeit admirable ones. While Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra's psychedelic spaghetti western love duet is nearly perfect in its original version, it's still open to interpretation, as Primal Scream's recent unlikely but winning version proved. However, Firewater's version, while still good, is dragged down by too many trippy effects, particularly on Charles' voice; the phasing and circus-like atmosphere just end up dragging down the song. Likewise, "Paint It Black" pretty much is perfect in its original version, and while the band's slow and traditional version -- which turns the song into something between a dirge and a mantra -- takes its menace in a different direction -- it also ends up draggy and slightly too long. As it stands, Songs We Should Have Written is two-thirds of a great album, and would've made an exceptional EP, which is much better than most cover albums fare. At any rate, fans should appreciate the revealing games of dress-up Firewater plays on this album.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares