often do you get to hear new music that makes you swivel your head 90
degrees in genuine surprise? Not too often, I'd bet. Well, Fiery Furnaces
are chock-full in the surprise department. Yet, surprisingly, there's no
other band so well equipped to create timeless pop classics that, at least
in a much better world, would sell in the billions upon billions. Fiery
Furnaces equip themselves with a perfect equation for balancing what the
audience thinks it wants and what F.F. feel it ought to get.
Fiery Furnaces' new disc
on Fat Possum, Bitter Tea, is an exhilarating hodgepodge of ADD-riddled, music-hall,
teary-ballad, tuff-rock, prog-avant textural madness and formal feistiness
frequently festooned with backward-tape vocals and the best/worst of '80s
keyboard technology. The more addled songs seem to change their minds about
life in midstream, or simply deny all that has come before. It is the most
different-sounding ostensibly rock-oriented music currently available.
Fiery Furnaces aren't
really a band at all лл well, not a proper band, according to Matthew
Friedberger, who along with his quirkily charismatic sister,
vocalist/drummer Eleanor, constitutes the full lineup. (Guest players
augment the studio and live actions.) The pair grew up quite happily in
Chicago, and decided to make music together after both had relocated to New
York City. This was a few years back, and, since borrowing money from
Matt's girlfriend to make their first album, they've gone on in
ultraprolific style to do five more, plus a jokey EP along the way. In
addition, Matt's got two solo albums coming out in August. Their only
"plan" has been to do what they felt like doing.
"It's just fun," says
Matt. "You know, we're not a big sort of band. If you just sell a few
records, so the record company doesn't say, 'You can't make one until
you've toured around forever and wrung the last nickel out of this album,'
then they're just happy to have another record. And it's fun to work if you
get to tell yourself what to do."
Bitter Tea, perhaps because it came
after the Furnaces' slightly difficult previous album Rehearsing My
featured vocals by the Friedbergers' grandmother, manages to be really
kicky in the catchy-pop sense, and deeply touching and intellectually
"It's popular music,"
says Matt, "it's just that we try to have just enough surprises that it
seems arbitrary and spontaneous and fun лл you know, lively as opposed to
following the song up to its conclusion, making it most effective for
slamming down the street or [laughs] whatever people are doing. People drive down
the street listening to our records, too, hopefully."
Listening to Bitter
Tea, I kept
saying to myself, That is beautiful. I'm hearing just extremely unusual
combinations of not only styles but textures and harmonies, not to mention
all of that stuff being utterly subverted by intentionally cheesy, cheapo
synths right out of a really bogus Cure B-side. The real miracle is how
Matt transcends mere tributizing while making all these often obvious
references to sappy classic rock.
"Our last record was a
lot of prose, a lot of talking," says Matt, "and Bitter Tea was gonna be the 'lyrical'
record, you know, with some repeated choruses, and so I wanted to have
these big, soppy, sentimental tunes and overly sentimental lyrics, and then
record in such a way that you can enjoy it at one remove."
Thus the lovely
"Waiting to Know You" works as a sweetly soppy sentimental song, and it
also sounds like someone trying to sing one.
"It's like people do
when they listen to songs," says Matt. "They relate them to their own
situation. You know it's about somebody else, and you kinda smirk about it,
that kind of smirk of recognition that it applies to you, even though it's
a song that maybe you think you're smarter than, you know, but really
For Bitter Tea's non-ironic irony (in vogue
as of July 2006), Matt needed crappy old digital synths that would sound
kind of pathetic, to give it all pathos and perhaps flip the bird a bit to
the '80s лл his musical roots.
"The keyboards and drum
sounds on this record are, like, Juno keyboards and Eventide and Lexicon
and all these things that sound very dated, and so hopefully that have a
kind of sad, broken-toy effect," he says. "And it all sounds like my
childhood." He's 33 years old. "It sounds a lot like '80s revivalism for
kids who are younger and don't really remember it, but it's got that
one-step-removed fashionable thing to it.
"But I always hated
those bands," he laughs, "and so did my sister. We didn't even like the
Smiths. I mean, Scritti Politti and the Cure, they don't sound anything
like each other, but I thought of them as the same as a kid."
All this weighty
thought is but a small part of Fiery Furnaces' intricate pop mystique and
charm, and that's owing to the elocutionary soul of Eleanor Friedberger's
singing. This way-charismatic interpreter of Matt's songs has to handle the
jittery jumble of too many syllables in such complex tunery as the
fractured electro-bubblegum prog show tune "I'm in No Mood," but grows
stronger and sweeter and deeper toward album's end.
"She's gotta walk on a
tightrope," Matt says, "and if she looks to one side or looks to the other
side, or looks back, then she's lost forever."
Eleanor, with her intelligent style and formidable
vocal chops, is the one who'll bring Fiery Furnaces their biggest and
splashiest notoriety, which they unreservedly deserve in that much better
faraway world but which neither she nor Matt give a toss about in the
parched, dreary one we inhabit. No, they want to do this because they like
doing it; they'll keep taking chances, and if people can relate, then cool,
Says Matt, "If you like
a band, it's not just that you like what they make, but you like what they
like. People like their clothes, or like everything they seem to stand
for." He laughs. "I don't think that happens with us."