It’s easy to see why Joe Firstman won the record deal with the big label. It’s the stereotypical rags to riches story—unknown comes to Hollywood with talent and conviction and little else, tirelessly promotes himself in the local clubs, wins the attention of some industry heavyweights—including Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin (Joe’s hero, naturally, with whom he’s written a couple of songs)—and ends up touring with Sheryl Crow. Not bad for an upstart kid from Charlotte, N.C. And he comes out of the gate on his debut album The War of Women with the confident swagger of someone who expects to sell a couple million albums and make a guest appearance on Jay Leno any day now. He’s not there yet, but you can see Jay keeping the couch warm.
Firstman never met a sensitive ’70s singer-songwriter he didn’t like, and he borrows liberally from them all—the lyrical piano style of early Elton John, the rasp of Bob Seger, the poetic jumble of Bruce Springsteen’s first two albums, the sadsack romantic sensibilities of Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne. When he employs these influences to great effect, as he does on the propulsive first single “Breaking All the Ground,” the Bob-Seger-like power ballad “Now You’re Gorgeous, Now You’re Gone,” or the pensively beautiful “Car Door (Dancing in the Aisles)” he sounds like the heir to all that was memorable and worthwhile about the romantic troubadours of the past.
But The War of Women is a mixed bag. Part of the problem is that Firstman sabotages his songs with some decidedly unlikeable sentiments. “I can’t stop loving you, baby/But I can’t stop hating myself,” he confesses in the otherwise infectious “Can’t Stop Loving You.” It’s a pickup line so transparently self-serving that every young, nubile woman in Hollywood ought to run shrieking for the canyons. Unfortunately, random profanity replaces Firstman’s more poetic sensibilities. More problematic, he doesn’t seem to know when to quit with the ’70s influences, and somebody needs to tell him that the crotch-grabbing rawk of “Slave or Siren,” a la Bad Company or Foreigner, is simply laughable.
Still, Firstman is a talented singer and songwriter, and fans of similarly minded retro rocker-poets such as Counting Crows or Pete Yorn will find much to like on The War of Women. Are you listening, Jay?