Firewater
w/St. Bushmill's Choir

Tues Nov 11, Chop Suey, 9 pm, $10 adv.

I realize I'm in small company when I declare myself to be a conscientious objector toward most things cover. My back goes up like a window shade pretty much every time I hear the phrases "tribute album," "cover band," or its free-for-all little brother, "cover night." I make exceptions where charity is concerned, because contrary to popular belief, my heart is not made of pork rinds, and I'm all for a good cause. But by my calendar, ye olde expiration date for karaoke passed a good two years ago, when it became inarguable that a single night cannot go by without at least three people howling through both "Welcome to the Jungle" and "One Way or Another." And now, no musician or band can put out a groundbreaking album without a bunch of ham and cheese sandwiches raring to make it in their own image. It's nothing more than karaoke with skillz.

However, there is something to be said for a band that does an entire album of cover tunes and then has the nads to call it Songs We Should Have Written, is there not? Especially when before I even saw the track listing for Firewater's boastful new record, I just knew "Is That All There Is?" would be among the mix. I knew this not just because it's one of the greatest songs ever sung (I bet in her entire career Peggy Lee didn't sing it as many times as its famous lines have filled the invisible thought bubble that constantly floats above my head), but also because, if you know anything about Firewater, that song just screams Tod A.

"Do you think we gave it enough respect?" inquires frontman Tod A. (the A. being short for Ashley) before stating, "It's my favorite song in the world." I tell him it figures in my Nostalgia Top Five (along with "Every Time We Say Goodbye," "White Cliffs of Dover," "When You Wish Upon a Star," and "One for My Baby," in no particular order). "We did about, I'd say, four different versions," the New Yorker says about the recording process, "and some were a bit more, and a bit less, 'fucking with it.' But the one on the album is the version we sort of fucked with the most and somehow it seemed to fit." Ashley knows no one can improve upon the version famously sung by Peggy Lee, so he chose, he says, to "rip it apart, stick it back together, and make it our own. So it's not better, it's just different, and I'm pretty happy about the way it came out." Agreed. Firewater's half carnival-barker, half hangdog-crooner interpretation gives the beautiful dirge a strident texture.

A few of the other reworkings on Songs We Should Have Written leave Ashley feeling somewhat ambivalent. "It's kind of cocky to try to cover any of those songs, anyway," he admits, before trying to explain why the band went ahead and did it. "We've never had trouble writing songs, but we have had trouble nailing it down to one sound," he says. Given Firewater's exploration of klezmer, Spanish, and other ethnic music influences funneled through the circus in your nightmares, it's safe to say the band is varied in its "sound." "I think what we learned the most while making the covers record is what works for Firewater and what doesn't, and as a result, the stuff that we're working on now--we basically have another record written already--is much more focused. Somehow taking somebody else's song and thinking, 'How would you deliver that?' really made it a lot easier to think about what kinds of things we should be doing as a band. Some people like the eclectic, anything-goes approach, but I think the next record is going to be much more honed down to, dare I say, a consistent style?"

Despite being an avid collector of Sinatra albums since the age of 18 (I gave Ashley one of my extra copies of Nice 'n' Easy when his former band Cop Shoot Cop came through town), I assumed the track "This Town" to be a Go-Go's cover rather than of Old Blue Eyes. "Damn! I wish I'd thought of that," he exclaims when I admit to him my mistake. "You know what the really embarrassing thing is?" asks the singer. "We recorded 'This Town,' and 'Some Velvet Morning,' and I had no idea that they were both fucking Lee Hazlewood songs. I just figured it was one of Sinatra's usual hacks who wrote it, and then I was like, 'Doh!'" With Ashley's deep, throaty croon and spaghetti-Western-style guitar, "Some Velvet Morning" comes off without smiting the original, and "This Little Heart of Mine" is turned into a hip-grinding, sexy tease.

Yeah, so call me an ass-talker when it comes to covers. At least Songs We Should Have Written leaves me asking, "Is that all there is?" for a good reason.

kathleen@thestranger.com