So I saw the Fiery Furnaces last week (well, it was last week when I started writing this over two months ago). It wasn't the greatest show, but I had a good time. As you may know, they are fond of re-arranging their arrangements in live performances, and while sometimes this can be cool (like when they performed "Navy Nurse" with the lyrics to "I'm Gonna Run", and further confused things by introducing the song as "Leaky Tunnel"), more often they seemed to take the edge off of their songs (like leaving out the tempo change that emphasizes the hook on "Straight Street"). I'm not against the idea of them doing "rockin'" live versions of two of my favorite songs, "Up in the North" and "Evergreen," but the versions they played had no personality at all. "Up in the North" would have sounded great as a fast song if they'd just added a little "Roadrunner" accent onto it, but the way they played it, it was hardly a song at all.
But the thing is, over the course of the following week, I could not get those songs out of my mind, and I went on a two-week listening binge. The Fiery Furnaces have now been cemented in my mind as one of my favorite bands of all time, and crystalized some of my opinions about their music. To make talking about the band a little easier, I have set up a 12-song Muxtape of the songs I'll be discussing in this piece
, so new listeners can follow along and be drawn to the cause of The Fiery Furnaces. Or repulsed from them. Whichever.
A year or two ago, I got into an email debate with my friend Rob over the band, when he referred to them as "prog rock." This was shortly after EP had come out, so their recorded output consisted of Gallowsbird's Bark
, Blueberry Boat
, so it was easy enough to dismiss Blueberry Boat
as a fluke (I wasn't that familiar with it anyway), and I responded that that seemed an inapproprately harsh term to use. And then there was DaveB's withering assessment of Widow City
on his blog earlier this year ("the Friedbergers write song parts, not songs, and then stitch them together in an awkward, haphazard fashion, hoping to impress with their constant jumps
"). And in light of Bitter Tea
and Widow City
, I'll have to agree with Rob's accusation and Dave's implication. The Fiery Furnaces are a prog rock band. This would be a problem if I hated prog on principal, but I don't (Zappa is one of my favorites, and Zappa is, if anything, more prog-ish than Rush or Jethro Tull). I don't hate Yes because they defy some sacred principle of rock n roll, because they're overly complicated and rock should be simple, or because they're a bunch of showoffs. I hate them because they suck. I think a lot of people internalize this idea that, since Yes and ELP are awful and The Ramones and Stooges are great, that there must be some organizing rule to the universe to explain this.
Listen to the last couple Furnaces albums, and you don't hear wankery. You hear great songs. Or, as Dave would have it, great bits of songs, cut up and pasted back together, so that the melodies swim around in your head. But they're great, fantastic melodies. Maybe "Thick as a Brick" or "Seen All Good People" are catchy tunes, but I don't think they can really be called "great," regardless of structure. Many of FF's songs can.
OK, I'll concede one point--the two best FF albums are Gallowsbird's Bark
, which are the least prog of their stuff. Bark is a fairly straightforward album, and at least half of the record is straight-up, blues-y garage punk, albeit with an extremely off-kilter sensibility. And EP
is a pop masterpiece. Or at least the first "side" is. Apparantly, EP
is a collection of unreleased stuff from their first couple years, but that first half flows as well as any album I've ever heard. The second half is more "out there," but still brilliant.
The second album, Blueberry Boat
, is the beginning of their more progish tendencies, and I think it's the weakest of their albums (not counting Rehearsing My Choir
, which we'll get to in a minute). Like I said, I have no problem with unconventional song structures, but I do have a bit of a distaste for "rock operas," and that's what a lot of the long suites on Blueberry
add up to. They hadn't yet figured out how to make these ideas work, and were relying on a Who-influenced structure of building storytelling songs from bits and pieces. Not to say that there aren't some amazing songs on the album, but it's the one with the most stuff that I could afford to lose.
On Bitter Tea
, the approach changes, tightens up. Instead of these little mini-operas, you get these compositions made up of brilliant bits of melody. In what is unquestionably the band's most progish song, "I'm in no Mood," two melodies, both as catchy as melodies get, are used as themes in what sounds (based on my tiny knowledge of classical music) like a Mozart piano concerto. The song isn't trying to tell a story, and seems interested in nothing more than pure melody, which suits me fine. Although there are stories to be told. Some of them are very compact, the narrative equivalent of haiku, as in the second "theme" of "I'm in no Mood":I was so drunk last night
I didn't even undress for bed
And the pin in my hair got stuck in my head
Or this, from "Black Hearted Boy":My mother-in-law
Standing by the stove
Hissing like a snake
She gave orders
To spill my blood
Pretty intense stuff. The one song that does seem to be devoted to an extended narrative is the title track. Is it any surprise that that's my least favorite song on the album? If I'm reading it correctly, it seems to be about a witch tempting a young lover to eat some sort of magical fruit which causes him to be turned into a crane. It sounds like one of those old Child Ballads
--I'd bet that the Freidbergers have spent a lot of time listening to the Anthology of American Folk Music
. Maybe their parents were old folkies? Many of their early songs, like "Single Again" and "Worry Worry" sound like they could be ancient folk songs. But I digress. I'm not even sure of the narrative I've constructed from "Bitter Tea." The only FF song I feel like I understand is the cartoonish tale "Inca Rag" from Bark
, wherein the narrator (I believe the same character is voiced by both Matthew and Eleanor) finds a mummy while dumpster diving behind the Cracker Barrell, immediately calls in sick to work, hops on his uncle's schooner and sails to some tropical island where he throws the mummy into a bottomless pit (but not before treating it to fried plantains and rum & coke). But for the most part, the words seem to serve the purposes of strengthening the melodies, creating vague images, and just sounding good. Rolling Stone compared "Quay Cur" (unfavorably) to Finnegan's Wake
, which makes as little sense as any other sentence in that review, but they do share Joyce's love of the English language, and load their songs with alliteration, internal rhyme and archaic idioms that make them sound like characters out of 19th century novels ("That damnable diesel never fails to deliver"). The alliteration reaches its peak on side two of EP, with the threefer of "Cousin Chris," "Sweet Spots" and "Sullivan's Social Slub." Sometimes, as on the end of "Namegame," Eleanor seems to be just savoring the sounds of the words, swishing them around in her moth, lingering on each one as it goes by: "Penguin...Mole...Sound...Chris." Listen to how she holds the last "s" at the end, as if the name has such delicious associations that she just wants to taste it as it passes over her tongue (obviously, I can understand).Widow City
, the band's most recent album, is very much in the same vein as Bitter Tea
, but they've gained confidence, and it's a stronger album. It doesn't hurt that they've incorporated a Zeppelinesque sound, with distorted synths standing in for guitars, which gives it a solid bottom their earlier albums lacked, and it's easily my favorite of the "prog" albums. The words don't make any more sense, and I don't believe there's any verbal connection between the three hooks on "Navy Nurse" (what would "She's a nurse, she's open-minded, she's involved" have to do with "If there's anything I've had enough of, it's today" or "This year's champion dwarf marigold?"), but the interwoven melodies are even more complex.
The one beef I have with Widow City
is that it doesn't have any short, simple songs. On both Blueberry Boat
and Bitter Tea
, the Freidbergers set aside some time for these simple little "traditional" songs that sound so beautiful, and so achingly familiar, as if you'd known them all your life. These songs are thrown into relief by weird-as-hell songs like "Wolfnotes" and the genuinely psychedelic "Vietnamese Telephone Ministry." "Waiting to Know You
" from Bitter Tea
is a my-true-love-is-out-there-somewhere song that's almost as good as "Ana Ng," and "Birdy Brain" from Blueberry Boat
is so generous with it's simple melody that it's almost cloying, but not quite. It sounds like a song the family might play on a piano in the parlour. Part of the mystique of this band comes from the feeling that these two siblings have a shared mythology they've been building since childhood, a hidden backstory to all their songs. I always think of Brenda and Billy on Six Feet Under
, with their Nathaniel and Isabell alter egos. You can imagine this whole unspoken world the two inhabit together. Which brings us, I suppose, to "the grandmother album."
I figured that, in the midst of this temporary obsession, now was the time to finally download Rehearsing My Choir
, the album they recorded with their grandmother. It's a difficult album, and it was met with hatred when it was released two years ago. It's not hard to see why--the album mostly consists of the grandmother telling stories about growing up in Chicago, and she has a very creaky, old woman voice. There is constant musical accompaniment, but little that could be considered real songs. But it's really quite a remarkable album. It's not an album I'll be listening to much over the course of my life, just as I probably won't go in for many repeat viewings of Magnolia
or Inland Empire
, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable for the times when I do listen to it. My favorite track is the opener, "The Garfield El," which captures both the propulsive sound and feel of being on a train and the excitement of a young girl's first train ride. Throughout the record, these sort of perfect little moments pop up, where the music emphasizes the story.
I was going to finish by linking to this great live recording
that Matthew Perpetua posted, but the link has since expired. Prog-crastination.