Monday, April 6, 2009

fIREHOSE. Ragin', Full On (SST, 1986)

"The enemy turns captain/ The captain turns civilian/ The lieutenant becomes casualty."

Most indie nerds know the story of fIREHOSE: Minutemen guitarist D. Boon died in a van accident in 1985, leaving his bandmates and best friends -- bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley -- devastated and distraught. Into this period of mourning stepped Minutemen superfan Ed Crawford, a 22-year-old Ohio kid who called up Watt out of the blue and persuaded him to start making music again. Crawford trucked out to California, and fIREHOSE -- also featuring Hurley behind the kit -- was born.

From 1986 to 1993, fIREHOSE -- not to be confused with hairmetalers Firehouse -- flew the flannel on five LPs and a handful of EPs, first with the legendary SST label and then on major Columbia. Though not quite as visionary and viscerally exciting as the Minutemen, the trio were a bit more melodic, trading D. Boon's hyper-literate, hopped-up spazz-speak for Crawford's more traditional tenor. The group's debut, Ragin', Full On, is one of the best indie albums of the '80s, a startling statement of purpose and a triumphant return for Watt and Hurley, one of the most ferocious rhythm sections ever to mark time.

Even though fIREHOSE tended to emphasize more standard rock and folk structures over the Minutemen's aggressive jazz punk, they retained much of the Minutemen's energy and impact. Crawford was never an amazing guitarist, and his playing pales in comparison to the blinding virtuosity of Watt and Hurley, but he has an intuitive feel for melody and timing, playing off the bass and drums in a natural, lived-in way, owning the melodies and creating space for the rest of the band. Ragin', Full On works because it sounds improvised and precise all at once, with hooks to spare and an overarching sense of excitement and enthusiasm.

"Brave Captain" is as good an introduction as any band could ask for, an instant classic and one of the best tracks fIREHOSE would ever lay to tape. Crawford frantically strums out a jarring, two-chord electrified jangle on loan from Mission of Burma while Watt and Hurley straight kill the time signatures, keeping things wild-eyed and jumpy without sounding like showoff a-holes. "There are doubts in your abilities/ There's too many blanks in your analogies," declares Crawford in a plaintive wail, drums and bass cascading behind him.

Other album standouts include the scatterbrained "Under the Influence of Meat Puppets," the charging anthem "Chemical Wire," and the playful "Locked In," which moves from sparkling pop to thoughtful folkiness to breathless rawk in under three minutes. And when Crawford, Watt, and Hurley bring the mood down, as on the delicate, Spanish guitar-inflected "The Candle and the Flame," the achingly pretty "Things Could Turn Around," or the acoustic lament "This...," fIREHOSE still pack a wallop, emotional resonance making up for instrumental aggression.

When I was in high school, I had a dubbed tape with Baldo Rex's awe-inspiring Parilda Cilgen Elmas on one side and Ragin', Full On on the other. Needless to say, it was one of my favorites, and I listened to it weekly. To my youthful ears, Ragin', Full On represented DIY excellence, instrumental prowess, and indie cool. Listening to it today, it still sounds that way, a gleaming jewel of an LP and the sound of a band rising from the ashes of tragedy.