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The Deep Strangenesses of the Fiery Furnaces

Saying the album is over is so over—these days, it’s the song itself that’s played out. Artists used to present two twenty-minute arcs, one per side; with the CD, they were responsible for an uninterrupted hour. But the move in the market from the album to individual song downloads killed all that off, and now a song won’t pass muster unless it will fit in a thirty-second ad spot: Witness Royksopp’s “Remind Me,” a Geico commercial hit. It’s on that planet that Brooklyn’s (formerly Chicago’s) Fiery Furnaces are avowedly behind the times. The sibling duo is selling album-oriented rock to a 4 MB world.

To be sure, Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger write irresistible songs: “Tropical Ice-Land,” “Straight Street,” “Philadelphia Grand Jury,” “Clear Signal from Cairo,” and their de-facto-if-not-chart-topping hit “Single Again.” But putting their tunes in an iPod Shuffle mix misses the point. The Furnaces inspire a following that requires, even assumes, knowing the albums. In concert, songs are rearranged and combined, even given new time signatures. A favorite cut might go unrecognized until the lyrics are finally caught. Fans become consumed with deciphering and analyzing, drawing story lines across albums, and theorizing about the meaning of a riff from one song being played in another, or why Eleanor is now singing one of Matthew’s songs. It’s a fandom from another time, the kind of obsession David Bowie once inspired.

There’s another line to be drawn from the Furnaces back to Bowie. Not many other bands have made keyboards rock like Bowie, or Stevie Wonder, did in the mid-seventies—not dance music, but rock with the guitar in the back seat, if not absent entirely. The Furnaces could also be likened to Paul McCartney, Jethro Tull, Billy Joel, and the small class of third-person pop storytellers with mouthfuls of lyrics—or the Carpenters, another sibling duo with a sister who occasionally plays drums. It’d be silly, but narrative threads aren’t the only sort of geekdom the band inspires.

On August 19, the Furnaces joined another class of monolithic rockers. Like Santana, Yes, Wings, and a handful of other seventies giants, the Fiery Furnaces released a triple live album. Also available as a double CD, Remember is, like its makers, deeply and deceptively strange. It’s a set of fifty-one songs, rearranged in ways that fans used to have to trade bootlegs to get. But then they’re rearranged further still. Songs are edited together—not for the best parts, not even to be passed off as single takes. Moments of forgotten lyrics are spliced in, not out. Applause and thanks are no longer reserved for the end of the song. PAs and instruments change with the verses, jumping years and sound quality. There’s a general feeling that at any moment any song might erupt into “Single Again.” And some do.

That song is the key to Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger’s songwriting mythos. The sibs favor stories of longing, of desperation, of being lost and not knowing what to do. ”Single Again” is as catchy as it is harrowing. A man who wants to be single again wants to be able to go out at night. Eleanor’s protagonist is looking to escape abuse, her story told in disarmingly singsong couplets: “I married another / He was the devil’s grandfather,” “He beat me he banged me / He swore he would hang me,” “’Cause when I was single / my pockets did jingle / and I wish I was single again.”

And therein lies another of the Furnaces’ deep strangenesses. No rock band has ever used the word husband half as often as they do. It’s just not a rock word. But the Friedbergers sing about an “Automatic Husband” who may or may not have been involved in leaving seven children in an air-conditioning-induced trance, and a husband “paying court to his mistress and stroking her hair” (on “Seven Silver Curses,” from Rehearsing My Choir, an album written around their grandmother’s stories and built around recordings of her telling them). Some of their songs can seem invasively personal, while others are like trying to read the newspaper drunk. Very drunk.

Remember might not gain them any new fans. (As with most rock bands, the studio versions remain the definitive ones.) And it won’t solve any of their many mysteries—though no doubt some fans will find clues, intentionally left or not. But listening to it can be a window into the psyche of their forlorn characters: Everything seems familiar, yet misplaced. The expected itinerary of a favorite song is likely to be upended, delayed, or rerouted, leaving time to daydream about faraway lands, perhaps as seen in a movie a long time ago, only to be slapped awake by a killer organ riff. And to be left wondering who the killer really was.


Kurt Gottschalk

KURT GOTTSCHALK writes about music for various publications, hosts the Miniature Minotaurs show on WFMU, and struggles with a variety of stringed instruments.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2008

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