Duane Betts & Palmetto Motel / Cordovas
Duane Betts & Palmetto Motel / Cordovas
The story of Cordovas is one of rock ’n’ roll seekers, hammering away in search not just for a platonic ideal of their freewheeling sound, but also for some greater truth about our experience as humans. The band is fueled by the long strange trip of frontman Joe Firstman, who had a circuitous path through his young adulthood — spat out from the major label system, a stint as a bandleader on Last Call With Carson Daly, and finally finding his way back to himself, a mystic classicist who has guided Cordovas through their own series of twists and turns. That includes their new record The Rose of Aces, which finds them returning with their finest collection of music yet.
Cordovas’ origins go all the way back the early ‘10s, when Firstman decided he was best with a
band around him. After releasing a self-titled debut and undergoing various iterations, things really started cooking when guitarist Lucca Soria joined the fold. Firstman describes him as “the one soldier that understands what I’m doing best.” Soon the band’s vision cohered further, and they signed to ATO, releasing the quick one-two of That Santa Fe Channel in 2018 and Destiny Hotel in 2020.
While it might seem like Cordovas were away a bit longer this time, the music never stopped. The group, in whatever form it currently exists, is always active. “When you finish your record, you’re starting the next one,” Firstman explains. Cordovas is a state of constant flow: Firstman, Soria, and their various co-conspirators gathering in their twin outposts — a farm in Nashville, and a hideout in the artist community of the Baja California town Todos Santos — to jam out ideas. Before the dust remotely began to settle on Destiny Hotel, Cordovas were already back in the shop, working up a trove of songs from which The Rose of Aces would emerge.
Once Cordovas had about 20 songs they were happy with, they linked up with producer Cory
Hanson. Firstman bemusedly describes the theoretical mismatch of the pairing — Hanson the
Southern California kid coming out to Nashville to work with “a whole bunch of, you know, Americans.” Whatever culture clash might’ve been there was just extra gasoline. “He brought a super-charged way of thinking because he’s a genius,” Firstman says. “He’s built his life wanting to sound like himself.” Hanson ended up contributing vocals and guitar to the album as well.
The Rose of Aces begins with a conjuring. “Your song comes on like a cure/ And you remember who you were before/ How many times did music save your soul?” Firstman asks on opener “Fallen Angels of Rock ’n’ Roll.” He goes on to trace rock history from Memphis to Muscle Shoals — though he’ll also quip he’s never actually been to Muscle Shoals. “I’m also aware of all the stuff that came through those places,” he says. “The criss-cross of American highways, you can’t take that away from me, man. I’ve ridden those dirty roads a lot.”
As is their custom, Cordovas held on to “Fallen Angels of Rock ’n’ Roll” for years, road-testing it and letting it come into its own before it was time to really get it into shape for recording. Firstman reflects on how Cordovas’ always sharpening chops — the band’s playing, but also his ability to push his voice further — let the song be what it always wanted to be over the years. While the song gives the album a rallying cry, it’s not without its wistfulness — its title reflecting on friends back in the day who didn’t make it. “The important part is don’t forget what music does for you,” Firstman says. “It can make you sad, it can make you happy, it can remind you of a better time.”
There’s no better way to kick off The Rose of Aces and Cordovas’ new chapter. The band has long cited influences like the Allman Brothers Band, Grateful Dead, and The Band. And while Cordovas can certainly jam, they’ve also long been acclaimed as tapping into the more songwriting-oriented side of those forebears. From “Fallen Angels of Rock ’n’ Roll” onward, you can hear the band honing their craft across The Rose of Aces. “What Is Wrong?” is a sunburnt twilight sigh of a song — originating with some ideas of Soria’s that the band then toyed with, adding some lyrics (“Are you ready?/ If you’re free enough to do it on your own”) that Firstman worked on with his girlfriend. Throughout his career, Firstman has taken fragments of various American traditions and turned them over into new lights, and you can almost hear Cordovas’ music as a travelogue — easy-going yet careening forward, from the laidback rollick of “Sunshine” to the swamp grooves of “Deep River” to, eventually, nodding to their home south of the border with closer “Somos Iguales.”
In true rock spirit, joints are lit and roads are rambled down. Salvation is sought, but characters stumble into sordid corners, too. “High Roller,” another highlight of the album, tells the story of the narrator and his compatriot Stanley having a chaotic bender at a casino.
When they’re camped out, friends and artists come and go. The band jams, and writer pals gather to dissect Marcel Proust or Marcus Aurelius. There’s an almost old-school, utopian scene at play — like-minded individuals not just improvising and seeing where it goes, but seeking a purpose through that discourse. There are all kinds of characters in Cordovas’ orbit, including the namesakes of the album — hotel owners Ace and Rose down in Mexico, who Firstman paid tribute to via an imagined Tarot card of an album name.
If the whole thing sounds like some kind of fantasy, it didn’t come without a lot of missteps and rebirths, sweat and hard work. Now 43, Firstman has already lived more than a few lives. Raised by a weed dealing vet father and an opera singer mother in Charlotte, the young Firstman took a Greyhound to Los Angeles in the early ‘00s and quickly became a buzzy young songwriter. He was signed to Atlantic, and released a solo debut called The War of Women in 2003. While the album led to some burgeoning success — including opening slots for Sheryl Crow and Willie Nelson — Firstman embarked on era of self-sabotage. “I was a fucking drunken nightmare, and the songs weren’t as good the second time around,” he admits. Soon, he was dropped from Atlantic, but landed on his feet with the bandleader gig on Carson Daly’s show, where his band included Kamasi Washington and Thundercat.
“I wanted to sing songs I wasn’t embarrassed of,” Firstman says of the transition from those years to Cordovas. As matter-of-fact and self-deprecating as he can be about his early LA days, Firstman also holds that time dear as a crucible, all the hard lessons he had to learn to become who he is now. “Everything is victory as long as you can pull it out of the trash and polish it off and identify it as such,” Firstman reflects. “That’s a big part of Cordovas. We wanna be better people — but not just for nothing.”
That brings us to the parables of Cordovas, the stories on The Rose of Aces arriving 20 years on from Firstman’s initial stint in the music industry. “With the philosophy, I’m trying to get you to change your brain and work in a useful way for society,” Firstman says. “What happens when you let that stuff in and you become it? What does your brain tell you then? Go feel that, and the standard you set and the call you make to your friends and the thing you said you were gonna do that mattered. How did you feel the next morning? What song did you write?”
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