Friday, October 23, 2009

The Fiery Furnaces - I'm Going Away


You know what this album reminds me of? Soul Asylum's Grave Dancer's Union. Remember that one? The one with "Black Gold" and "Runaway Train?" It was a pretty big hit in the days of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains first breaking through, and it's a pretty good album. Not nearly as good as Hangtime, but...well, therein lies my point, because I got into some pretty heated arguments over Grave Dancer's Union. If you listen to the songs on Hang Time--say, "Sometime to Return" or "Cartoon"--those songs are so thrilling, the way they have all these syllables crammed in, all these melodies working at cross-purposes. You don't get any of that on GDU, just simple, strong melodies, heartfelt lyrics and soulful performances. You get everything that most people would agree makes for good music, but you don't get anything that I personally felt had once made the band so unique, but maybe to other people those things were just gimmicks, extraneous bullshit that kept people from enjoying the songs. This is the dividing line between how the hardcore fan might look at an artist, versus how the average listener might hear them. I'm thinking of the way hardcore Coen Bros. fans can never really understand what the big deal is about Fargo, or the confusion it caused me to discover that there were people for whom Clockers was their favorite Spike Lee film. To the outsider, these films are superior because they have less of the auteurs' "quirks" getting in the way. To the insider, those "quirks" are the very thing that attracts them in the first place.
Anyway, I don't really feel the same about I'm Going Away as I do about Grave Diggers Union, (that is to say, I like the album a lot) but I'm guessing there are a lot of people out there who couldn't really get into the Fiery Furnaces in the past, who would dig this album if they gave it a chance. Here you have, for the majority of the album, no "prog rock" songs with multiple sections and tempo changes, no absurd stories told in an affected voice, filled with archaic language and too-clever alliteration. Instead, you have 12 solid, simple melodies, with lyrics written by Eleanor about her various ex-boyfriends (or so the band claims). To the outsider, this is the band concentrating on its obvious strengths: a great ear for melodies and a knack for writing clever wordplay into their lyrics. But here it is, without the "clutter." Oh, sure, there are a few weird songs scattered throughout, but mostly we get these simple melodies, with lyrics that make emotional sense. (I don't know if the lyrics are really any more heartfelt--it's possible that those silly songs have real emotional meaning to the Friedbergers, and these songs are total artifice--but to the listener, these songs are surely more emotionally accessible.) And the sounds are in the zone that's perfectly pleasing to the ear, all warm electric pianos that are not too sweet or too mellow, recalling the mellow 70's sounds of, I dunno, Stevie Wonder or Steeley Dan or something. In the most extreme example of this, we have the song "Even in the Rain," which could have been a hit for Alanis (?) Morrisette or Sheryl Crowe in the mid-90's.
Man, every time I try to write about this band, I just end up babbling.

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