Howard Fishman sounds like a 20-year-old Tom Waits when he sings, G. Love when he raps and John Scofield when he plays his 1933 Gibson acoustic. His band — which features a trumpet, stand-up bass and electric violin player — is as tight as Medeski, Martin and Wood, and rips better solos than Phish. The Howard Fishman Quartet is nonetheless all but unknown outside of the Mercury Lounge and a few other clubs around the Northeast — gigs they earned after playing in New York City subways in 1999. Their new album, Do What I Want, released on their own Monkey Farm Records, is stellar.
If Beck ever tries to tackle jazz, I think it’ll sound something like Do What I Want, especially because the album has such an interesting amalgam of influences. Doc Watson’s guitar picking, Gram Parsons’ brand of country, Miles Davis’ stuff with John McLaughlin, even early Led Zeppelin, come alive in the band’s songs about ex-girlfriends and newly-found independence. Thanks to them, the Quartet sounds different on each and every track. On some songs the classic whimper of a Hammond B3 organ sets the laid-back mood, on some an electric violin emulates Hendrix’s Fender, and others still rely mostly on trumpet solos. The album, unlike their previous two, has a drummer (actually, two: the one on the chiller tracks uses brushes, and there’s another who tends to, as the kids say, rock out).
Despite the different sounds the band attempts throughout the record, their musicianship remains consistently solid. Led by Jonathan Flaugher’s chunky baselines, the quartet’s tight rhythm section allows for mean solos from the other instruments — even the violin (which sounds surprisingly right at home in the more-or-less jazz band). Alas, the lyrics aren’t as good as the instrumentation — though considering that the band’s first gigs were in subway stations it isn’t that surprising. “I guess we could read the New York Times, maybe listen to some NPR or go to the cute little coffeshop on the corner” is exactly the type of lyric you’d make up if you were serenading rush-hour traffic. Fishman’s voice, like Lou Reed’s, is likeable despite his obvious lack of training and abundance of cigarettes. His catchy songwriting (lyricism aside), self-taught guitar virtuosity, and knack for finding amazing band-mates more than makes up for it.