2006 / Music

Review: Fiery Furnaces Continue Abstract Ways On New LP

Brother-Sister Combo Releases More Concise, Avant-Garde Ditties

Artists often see the world very differently from the average Joe. Where many might only see chaos, they might be able to connect the dots and coax meaning from disparate elements.

Photo: Fat Possum Records

Photo: Fat Possum Records

In the case of the Fiery Furnaces, the New York-based, brother-and-sister combo of Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, this unique perception has resulted in some curious and bewildering music.

The pair set indie-rock hipsters’ sensibilities aflame with their last record, 2004’s “Blueberry Boat,” which introduced a baffling and rambling musical mindset constructed on fractured and unorthodox melodic elements and instruments. Equal parts electro-clash, art-student scribblings and low-fi rock, their music was smart and cool. Their songs are subtly conscious of pop norms but committed to the avant-garde.

“Bitter Tea” builds on this foundation but adjusts the balance. As was the case with “Blueberry Boat,” their new offering tops 70 minutes in total, but is now full of more concise invitations to their weird sonic world.

The cranky among us could say the Furnaces are of their generation. Occasionally interesting but consistently demonstrating weak follow through, there is a sense that some kind of ADD might be at work here. Their early ’80s-influenced music frequently turns on a dime, transitioning into something tangentially related but heading in a new direction. The song fragments are combined in such a way as to resemble MTV-style edits.

Take “In My Little Thatched Hut,” which slithers with a keyboard-created tango rhythm. This straightforward-ness abruptly disappears a third of the way through, when an acoustic guitar interrupts and introduces a sparse, synthetic tribal drumming that’s augmented by electronic bird chirping and evil-sounding keyboard squiggles. From there, the song keeps getting stranger. Voices speaking backward intone and a digitized horn breakdown sounds like the kids have gotten into the kazoos at the birthday party. The only consistency is Eleanor Friedberger’s deadpan vocals, which weather the changes unaffected.

These jump-cuts allow the song to smoothly (kind of) segue into “I’m In No Mood,” a thin, metallic-sounding piano plays a clipped, insistent pattern that could’ve been used first during the silent film era. An organ pays a theme reserved for mad scientists, a guitar screeches like an elephant and more backward vocals coalesce to create disconcerting interludes to disorient the listener from the seemingly clearheaded-ness when the piano dominates. For the title track, the melody created by mechanized, computer squeaks transforms into an oscillating guitar and an Indian warpath rhythm.

While these experiments of tying disconnected parts have their intellectual, beard-stroking moments, the record’s more coherent numbers are the most enjoyable. “Waiting To Know You” is full of keyboard fluctuations that create a yearning melody. The ripples of keyboard are backed by the fluttering hiss of a blender (or maybe a food processor) sound-alike chiming in. It sounds a lot like a lumbering version of a Flaming Lips song. Its waltz-like beat also makes it perfect for a 21st Century prom.

“Oh Sweet Woods” has a low-intensity dance beat and guitar pattern similar to Golden Earring’s hit, “Twilight Zone.” That offsets the non-existent enthusiasm that Eleanor Friedberger gives vocals. For her, she’s reporting the lyrics like an anchorman and it seems like it’s just another day at the office.

Nothing is routine about “Police Sweater Blood Vow,” which is a fascinating mess that could be a futuristic update on Bob Dylan’s “Blonde On Blonde”-era, 12-bar blues slamming into surrealism. A pile of acoustic instruments bump against each other that barely supports a melody already overstuffed with absurd lyrics in the Dylan tradition. Who knows what Friedberger is singing about, as it seems the sound of the words meshing together is the important thing.

“Teach Me Sweetheart” boasts the record’s most alluring vocal melody that lies on a bed of bubbling computerized squeaks and chirps. It’s a tad repetitive but a forthright organ, an occasional energetic drum fill and a guitar that channels a vacuum cleaner break up the pattern. (Why is it every time I hear this record I think the phone is ringing?)

“Benton Harbor Blues” is the record’s most linear offering. Again, an organ sashays and burbles along. The real standout here is that Friedberger sings with some gusto. She’s not belting it out, but there’s some inflection in her delivery. She has a lot of words to get through but unlike most of the album, she sings like they have some meaning beyond the paper.

Increasing understanding of their music it seems was an underlying goal for the Furnaces. In recent press interviews, the Friedbergers have emphasized that “Bitter Tea” represents a more accessible version of their vision. Really, this is only half true. In keeping with the group’s standard operating procedure, the new album sometimes is and sometimes isn’t an introduction, depending on which direction the music is veering off to.

If the Fiery Furnaces’ newest really reflects an honest attempt at going mainstream, it is a move still clouded by a love of the abstract.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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