The Minutemen are fondly remembered by most as heroic 80s punk rockers, with some smart messages entrenched in a working class spiel, but mainly for the blend of punk and jazz and funk that set them apart from their peers. Comparisons to early Gang Of Four have been drawn, although it’s fair to say that the British band relied more heavily on a hard funk influence to their rhythm section, whereas the Minutemen had a wider range. Towards the end of the Minutemen catalogue, bits of country began to surface, but didn’t dominate the mix. After guitarist D Boon’s death, Ed Crawford drove from
to Ohio to talk bassist Mike Watt, drummer George Hurley, and The Unit into forming a new band, and thus Firehose was born. The band released five full lengths and a light dusting of singles and extended plays, although at some point The Unit was forced out of the band after a violent altercation with Hurley, although there are rumours that a barber was involved. Crawford brought a more distinctively country-flavoured edge with his guitar and vocals, Watt’s bass playing became more eclectic, encompassing more swing, and Hurley’s agile drums mostly stayed true to the freeform jazzy talents that we remember him for. What we ultimately got were five albums that were all different, but all the same in many respects, including genre-bending and inconsistency. California
Fromohio was the third of those full length records, and is perhaps the one with the strongest southern lilt, which is in evidence almost immediately. A brief jazz-funk introduction of cymbals and an angular guitar give way to a more full-bodied good-ol’-time rock. “Riddle Of The Eighties” is quite the swinger, as is Crawford’s vocal contribution, but it features plenty of stop-start dynamics. “In My Mind” has an even older sound to it, but has an irresistible flow to it. The vocals are relaxed a little, delivering nothing but simple verses, the cymbal-heavy drumming features a four-on-the-floor beat in the background, the bass keeps swinging buoyantly, and the guitar work is wonderfully suited, switching from some upbeat acoustic-sounding strumming in the verses to neat high-end twangs in the breaks, the last of which segues neatly into a little guitar solo to finish with a flourish.
The harder funk Watt is better known for employing makes its first appearance introducing “”Whisperin’ While Hollerin’”. A more snare-heavy rhythm and paranoid vocals and guitars give this track a stark menace after what came before it. A brief solo and a few other high notes punctuate what is very much a bass-led song. We’re entering a largely funk-driven part of the album at this point, but we’re kept in with the opening theme with the first of three little sound pieces. Crawford does a little instrumental take on a classic guitar piece with “Vastopol”, a whiskey-drenched tune originally by Elizabeth Cotten, whose death was referred to on the previous album, 1987’s If’n. It’s a bit stuck out at this stage, giving the classic inconsistency, but it serves well to keep the album tied in.
“Mas Cojones” is a bit of a mess. It doesn’t really have a beat to it, the sparse guitar and bass work sound a bit disappointing, and the vocal interplay between monosyllabic Crawford singing and one-sentence spoken lines courtesy of Watt don’t really gel. There’s a brief moment where the instruments fall into place and give us the promise of a restrained build up, but this fails to materialise and the song carries on as it started. “What Gets Heard” is a better track, featuring a much more aggressive bass line, Watt’s much deeper voice doing some singing, and some scratchy guitars that sit well above the mix. “Let The Drummer Have Some” is another little sound bite, this time of Hurley mostly working cymbals, with a few other bits clattering around.
A marching drumbeat, acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies introduce “Liberty For Our Friend”, which is as funky as a Cornish pasty, and not quite as exciting. Save for the drums, it sounds like a campfire song, conjuring images flannel shirts on logs, and roasting marshmallows. I hate marshmallows. “Time With You”, which was released as the promotional single for the album, follows, and brings back some much needed pop and swing. Great guitars lead the way, backed by timely drumming and smooth bass. There are more hooks crammed into this track than in the last five put together, and the guitar movements flow into each other brilliantly.
“If’n” starts with a funky little riff, descending guitars meet climbing bass notes. Some gentle acoustic guitar kicks in with some gentle crooning, and a Watt one-liner does a much better job recycling the music sequence than on “Mas Cojones”, and after a couple of them, a more lively piece kicks in, and then the song leaves gently. Rolling drums see “Some Things” jump into the breach with plenty of life, and there’s plenty of pace even in the quietest bits. It’s an unspectacular but fun track, so while it doesn’t win any awards, it keeps the album flowing nicely.
This purple patch on the album culminates with “Understanding”, which shines without breaking into a sweat. The cruising opening riffs give way to some subtle bits, as indeed many songs on the album have done, but each time that opening sequence comes in, you get a comforting feeling and start bobbing your head. Crawford’s vocals here are some of his best, and Hurley’s drumming is intricate without being flash, and we’re left with the highlight of the back end of the album. Another Hurley solo, appropriately titled “‘Nuf That Shit George”, is the last of these little musical interludes, and is forty seconds of mostly scattergunned lower end drums. The album closer, “The Softest Hammer”, is a slow track with echoing vocals, and it doesn’t really do anything for the first half. A build up this time does lead to a more powerful part of the song, although the sluggish pace is continued. Somewhere in the din, you can hear the screams of “It’s Ed from
”, which is a factually correct piece of information. Ohio
Fromohio is probably the Firehose record that is the most shy of really great songs, but while the inconsistency is there, the overall standard of the music is just as good as any other Firehose record, perhaps even the best. If you’re in the mood for a good ol’ time, there’s a handful of really good ol’ rock to sink your teeth into, particularly with tunes penned by Crawford, who, like Boon before him, typically wrote the catchier songs compared to Watt’s tougher songs. Nevertheless, if you’re feeling the funk, then there’s something here for you too. While nothing here quite stacks up to “Sometimes” and “For The Singer Of REM” from If’n, Fromohio overall outguns its predecessor in all departments, and was a fine way for Firehose to finish the chapter and start on the heavier sound that permeated Flyin’ The Flannel and Mr Machinery Operator.
Personal picks: In My Mind, Time With You, Understanding
Picks for others: Time With You, What Gets Heard, If’n
For Our Friend, Let The Drummer Have Some, Mas Cojones Liberty
01 – Riddle Of The Eighties
02 – In My Mind
03 – Whisperin’ While Hollerin’
04 – Vastopol
05 – Mas Cojones
06 – What Gets Heard
07 – Let The Drummer Have Some
For Our Friend Liberty
09 – Time With You
10 – If’n
11 – Some Things
12 – Understanding
13 – ‘Nuf That Shit George
14 – The Softest Hammer