Fiery Furnaces

(Copyright © 2004-23 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

Gallowsbird's Bark (2003) , 7.5/10
Blueberry Boat (2004) , 7/10
Rehearsing My Choir (2005), 7/10
Bitter Tea (2006) , 7/10
Widow City (2007), 6.5/10
Mat Friedberger: Winter Women and Holy Ghost Language School (2006), 5/10
I'm Going Away (2009) , 5/10
Eleanor Friedberger: Last Summer (2011), 5/10

(Clicka qui per la versione Italiana)

As the USA took Britain's place in launching over-rated "next big things" such as the White Stripes, the Fiery Furnaces, formed by Matthew Friedberger and Eleanor Friedberger, siblings from Chicago who relocated to New York, happened to be in the right place at the right time. Except that they deserved what the White Stripes merely abused. Gallowsbird's Bark (Rough Trade, 2003) was one chaotic burst of creativity. To start with, rambling vocalist-preacher-exorcist Eleanor Friedberger belongs to the school of Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde. Once her anti-crooning style is coupled with the spiked guitar riffs and the most unstable dynamics of recent years, the result sounds awfully inspired by the frenzied sloppy blues-rock of the Rolling Stones in their most drunk/deranged condition, replete with a Nicky Hopkins-ian clangy honkytonk piano, or, quite simply, Captain Beefheart's Magic Band fronted by Janis Joplin or any anti-folk heroine. South Is Only a Home unfolds like a hysterical sermon over a childish, insistent piano and drums backing (something in between the Velvet Underground's White Light White Heat and early Frank Zappa's circus music). The structure of the anthemic Gale Blow is a masterful combination of a hymn-like melody and a march-like rhythm that seem to mock each other but actually manage to enhance each other. The swamp beat (doubled by a monster synthesizer) of Leaky Tunnel leads a gargantuan dance that gets quickly out of control, while the pounding pow-wow dance of Two Fat Feet releases a soaring refrain through its maze of noise. The music-hall piano rigmarole of Inca Rag/ Name Game slowly metamorphoses into a White Light White Heat-style boogie, while the similarly old-fashioned Bow Wow picks up enough dirt along the way to decay into abstract cacophony. Songs flash by like a stream of severely altered states of mind.
The blues is more than a mere post scriptum. It permeates some of the most poignant moments from the Delta blues of I'm Gonna Run to the Chicago blues of Asthma Attack, and, above all, the majestic, apocalyptic We Got Back The Plague that closes and crowns the album.
Whether engaged in the martial Crystal Clear or paralyzed in the folkish Tropical Ice Land, or minimized in the pseudo-country ballads Up in the North and Don't Dance Her Down, Eleanor Friedberger's voice dominates the proceedings. Furthermore, a few short low-key monologues prove the vocalist's recitation skills (Rub-Alcohol Blues).
Sometimes the exuberant neglect of their arrangements evokes Pere Ubu. However, the Fiery Furnaces concoct a more robust rock sound, and are often capable of straight songwriting. Their versatile and multi-faceted style has few precedents.

Blueberry Boat (Rough Trade, 2004), ostensibly dedicated to the Who's mini-opera A Quick One, stretched out into longer and more adventurous songs, while adding a more sophisticated use of electronic keyboards.
The 11-minute Quay Cur begins like an abstract, dissonant piano sonata played over a syncopated and distorted electronic beat. Then the singer intones a childish refrain. Then the music delves into a Frank Zappa-ish fanfares, only to return to the childish motif sung in a lower tone at a slower pace until the male voice joins in for the close. As a mini-opera it is a bit weak and disconnected.
The nine-minute Blueberry Boat opens with a circus-like atmosphere, but then seems to mimick Jethro Tull and plunges into a strained, tortuous melodrama.
The eight-minute Chris Michaels borrows the riff and the emphasis from the Who's Tommy, but the dialogue that follows is far from robust. By the time the eight-minute Mason City rolls by, one has understood the general idea: this is a recitation-oriented work that assigns a different kind of accompaniment to each section, based on the lyrics, which Eleanor Friedberger often sings in a serious tone reminiscent of the Jefferson Airplane's Grace Slick, but without her vocal power. Her brother complements her in a rather expression-less register, sometimes too colloquial to be called "singing". The gravity of their singing peaks with the nine-minute Chief Inspector Blancheflower, one of their most cohesive recitals.
These lengthy pieces, each meant to be a form of theater, are ambitious collages of styles (and tours de force of arrangement) but lack the kind of musical-narrative logic that could hold them together. In fact, the best of their theatrical songs may well be the short 1917, that is only spoken but relies on a futuristic background.
Thankfully, the blues-tinged dementia of the first album continues to fibrillate inside Straight Street (another breathtaking combination of cabaret-style piano and vocals), Paw Paw Tree (another miracle of abstract noise coalescing into vibrant music), My Dog Was Lost (another swampy rock'n'roll), Birdie Brain (finally an infectious refrain).
The band's adventures in progressive-rock are only partially successful.

EP (Rough Trade, 2005) collects rarities and unreleased tracks.

The concept album Rehearsing My Choir (Rough Trade, 2005), structured as a dialogue between the older Olga Sarantos (negative character), who also happens to be the duo's grandmother, and the younger Eleanor Friedberger (positive character) over a bed of eccentric and cacophonous sounds, tries to be both ambitious and amateurish, austere and cartoonish. The idea is brilliant and groundbreaking, to say the least. Basically, it is a suburban white man's version of the concept of hip-hop music: analyzing life aloud against an atmospheric soundscape. Here the soundscape is the musical equivalent of hyper-neurosis, and the verbal analysis is a woman's melancholy reminiscences pit against another woman's hopes. Also brilliant is the casting: two "singers" who are not really singers and are certainly not true storytellers. While controversial, the deliberately childish accompaniment is an appropriate pillar for the vocals and the core of the whole experiment, crafting moments of masochistic delight such as 4823 22nd Street (a Caribbean orgy turning into a limping piano-synth skit) and The Garfield El (a musichall skit with frantic toy piano, male spoken-word recitation, female nursery-rhyme vocals).
The most far-reaching pieces are strange monsters that highlight both the talents and the limitations of the Fiery Furnaces. The brief Though Let's Be Fair unveils a more tragic side of the project, as the dark tones prevail over the humorous tones. (So does the closing Does It Remind You of When). The six-minute The Wayward Granddaughter sounds like a mini-opera, a dialogue between the two voices over disco beat, burbling synthesizer and town-fair organ. The story is accompanied by an ever changing parade of musical styles, frequently bordering on cabaret-ist cheerfulness. However, the idea does not translate well into sound, and the lengthy excursus does not seem to reach proper closure. Much better is Guns Under the Counter, that boasts a driving narrative structure and litters it with deliciously old-fashioned genres as well as avantgarde-style passages. The nine-minute Seven Silver Curses combines the best of both worlds, the dramatic play and the musical melodrama, weaving an endless series of stylistic metamorphoses. The outcome evokes both Frank Zappa's mock-operettas and Robert Ashley's anti-operas while maintaining a core that is closer to the music-hall and the cabaret.
Despite the ostensively spartan backing, this album is as a dense container of musical ideas. The sheer wealth of snippets that were used to assemble the "songs" is breathtaking. If the collage does not always work smoothly, there is no question that Fiery Furnaces have coined a new paradigm for the rock opera. Seldom do rock musicians display such a profound vision.

Bitter Tea (Fat Possum, 2006), originally conceived as the pop counterpart to its predecessor, was eccentric even by their standards. The emphasis had somehow shifted to the vocals and the arrangements were inherently tied to the way the voice derailed the melody. Greater doses of electronic noises were employed to further detonate the unstable fragile structures and further disorient the listener. Last but not least, Matthew Friedberger had grown a passion for quaint keyboards more often associated with cheap forms of entertainment. Their unlikely marriage with electronics yielded a split personality.
The otherworldly fusion of musique concrete and naive pop, reminiscent of what the United States Of America did in the Sixties, permeated ditties such as In My Little Thatched Hut (with a touch of Suicide's neurosis), Bitter Tea for tiny android noises, pounding Balkan rhythm and treated vocals (perhaps the zenith of this kind of space-pop), Teach Me Sweetheart, a simple melody diluted inside an abstract free-form arrangement, etc.
I'm In No Mood and childish Borneo showed their debts to the futuristic vaudeville of the Cabaret Voltaire and to Brecht's technique of "estrangement" (probably unconsciously quoting the prog-rock of the Art Bears).
Throughout these experiments they borrow and distort classic styles. For example, Waiting to Know You sounds like a remnant from the age of surf music (the melody) and rhythm'n'blues (the rhythm). Oh Sweet Woods is basically a deconstruction of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean. The radio-friendly Benton Harbor Blues (one of their few melodies in a major key) echoes soul-rock of the 1970s.
The sonic delight of the album peaks with The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry: a fast skipping beat, a looping acid piano lay a hypnotic carpet that carries the male's Gregorian-like melody; the stronger female melody causes a reaction in the male melody, almost like in a gospel-ish call-and-response. The two voices duet until the woman prevails and leads the act to a close in a plain spoken tone. The two voices are contrasted again in the more organic Nevers (the peak of Eleanor Friedberger's nonsensical lyrics, such as "nothing never i'll ever learnt"), a dialogue mirrored by two keyboards complementing each other (also reprised in a reggae version the end).
There is hardly a wasted moment in the whole album.

Widow City (Thrill Jockey, 2007) marks a return to a more linear, extroverted and fluid form of expression. While the attention span is still minuscule (i.e., songs last just about the time to let the listener figure out what they were meant to be), the collection exudes a new air of professional care that can only be attributed to unintentional growth as musicians.
The seven-minute The Philadelphia Grand Jury toys with cabaret overtones, but the detours are more interesting than the main plot. By the same token, the six-minute Clear Signal from Cairo undergoes countless format changes. As a matter of fact, several songs sound like panels of a musical play, sometimes bordering on cartoon music: Automatic Husband, My Egyptian Grammar, The Old Hag Is Sleeping. These extend into verbose power-pop ditties Duplexes of the Dead, Ex-Guru, Restorative Beer. The best musical creation is perhaps Japanese Slippers, that maintains that eccentric-cabaret format while boasting an epic pace and a catchy progression. The quality decreases dramatically from the tenth song till the end, a sign that maybe this should have been a shorter album.

Mat Friedberger debuted solo with the mediocre two-disc Winter Women and Holy Ghost Language School (2006).

Remember (Thrill Jockey, 2008) is a double-disc live album.

I'm Going Away (Thrill Jockey, 2009) is their simpler album yet, and, not coincidentally, it opens with an amateurish cover of the traditional I'm Going Away. The duo has vastly scaled back its artistic ambitions. Alas, the relatively uneventful structures implicitly push to the foreground the lyrics, and, as usual with rock musicians, Eleanor Friedberger isn't exactly a Nobel laureate poet. Any minor country singer hailing from Nashville can write better stories and with a more expansive vocabulary. Another limit that stands out is related to the instrumental and vocal skills, that were never spectacular to start with, but at least they were dazzlingly innovative. Due to its sudden accelerations, the lounge anthem Drive To Dallas sounds like a parody of Don McLean or Billy Joel. The longer Take Me Round Again is a more serious take on the same idea, a country hoedown to the core and adding a touch of southern-rock pride. The End Is Near mimicks Burt Bacharach's easy listening pop-jazz. The bluesy cry Cut The Cake would be perfect for Macy Gray. These slow, mellow, soulful ballads marked a calculated retreat, and perhaps the beginning of a new career. What was left was mostly the hype: those who missed them when they were great now indulged in superlatives about their music. The more vibrant songs were not particularly original. The retro vignette Charmaine Champagne launches into an amusing charleston, but it pales in comparison with similar ventures by Rip Rig & Panic. Even In The Rain (possibly the standout) echoed both Cat Stevens's melodic progressions of the 1970s (Wild World and the likes). The clapping-driven catchy refrain Keep Me In The Dark jumps suddenly to the 1960s of Phil Spector Lost At Sea borrows from both Bob Dylan and Jefferson Airplane for a mildly solemn meditation. It's way too little too late. This should have been an EP centered on Take Me Round Again and Even In The Rain.

Eleanor Friedberger started her own project with Last Summer (2011), that contains the catchy I Won't Fall Apart on You Tonight and My Mistakes (as well as the revision of an early Fiery Furnaces number, Here Comes the Summer). The lavishly arranged Owl's Head Park is typical of the rest: evocative elegies that explore the soul of New York City.

In january 2011 Matthew Friedberger started releasing an LP every two months, each one playing a single instrument, plus two bonus LPs for those who bought the whole series; i.e., the eight-LP box-set Solos (Thrill Jockey, 2011).

(Copyright © 2004 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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