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The Fiery Furnaces

OMG, it’s TFF’SOFRNRSDP. That’s the fucking fantastic acronym the Fiery Furnaces’ Web site employs to describe their round of summer tour dates. Translating to “The Fiery Furnaces’ Old-Fashioned Rock-N-Roll Summer Dance Party,” the cheeky, rickety, and kinda brilliantly sideways duo goes on to describe the shows as “30 songs in…more than 30 minutes!” This shouldn’t be a surprise; Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger never seem to want anything more than to get to the next lyric, note, lick, or joke. Expect material from all over the map of their nine albums, but not white balloons dropped from the ceiling—because the TFF’SOFRNRSDP Web post says there won’t be any of that shit. With John Mulaney.

Thu., June 24, 9 p.m., 2010

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The Fiery Furnaces Get Inscrutable

With the Fiery Furnaces, live performance is the juice: a public-setting-as- laboratory proposition wherein principal sibs Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger (along with whoever’s sharing space in the touring van, including, sometimes, Sebadoh’s Jason Lowenstein) can play Operation with the band’s constantly mushrooming catalog of art-rock test subjects. The late Marcel Duchamp famously left The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even “unfinished”; the Friedbergers subscribe to a similar aesthetic of perpetual incompletion, which explains why the bootleg market for live Furnaces MP3s is thriving. Anything can happen to, say, “Navy Nurse” under the harsh, unrelenting glow of hot stage lights: instrumental addition or subtraction, lyrical decimation, melodic bleaching, breakneck medley conscription. “Navy Nurse” might be your favorite Fiery Furnaces song, but in concert, you might not even recognize it.

While Remember finally cashes in on and officially immortalizes this unhealthy appetite for deconstruction, the two-disc whirligig sometimes doubles as a Furnaces-specific Don’t Forget the Lyrics home game. Recognizing “Inca Rag/Name Game” is a matter of placing Eleanor’s shaggy “I was listening to classic VH when I pulled a H Singh” ejaculation, because the blooze-guitar jerks have been replaced with paranoid keyboard epilepsy. “Forty-Eight Twenty-Three Twenty-Second Street” gets similar treatment, only with a much livelier time signature. Infidelity soap opera “Chris Michaels” retains its complex, multi-suite swirl, but the barnstorming synth hook that powered gambling-outta-control travelogue “Borneo” becomes a muted whimper. Elsewhere, the Friedbergers’ revisionist urge emerges in forms both compelling and defeatist. Shuffling together cross-sections of loose-lady admonition “Don’t Dance Her Down” (“Her man’s in town”) and marital-discord anthem “Single Again” (“He beat me and banged me/He swore he would hang me”)? A genius narrative juxtaposition, or at least a frantic but nifty hotfooting of perspectives. But compressing “Chief Inspector Blancheflower” from eight carefully crafted minutes down to a clogged and spotty two seems wantonly cruel, even masochistic. Then again, maybe there’s about as much point trying to ascribe rhyme and reason to Remember as there is in demanding linearity from the Furnaces’ catalog as a whole.

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The Collage King of Queens

We begin by inviting Matthew Friedberger, one-half of hometown art-rock darlings the Fiery Furnaces, to perform solo, acoustically, anytime and anywhere, on the highways, byways, or subways of New York City.

He protests. “I’ve never done that in my life. I’ve never thought about doing it.”

He begs off. “I don’t think of myself as much of a performer. Or even much of a musician. I understand a lot of musical things, and I can play a lot of instruments, but I think of myself just as a rock songwriter.”

So Matthew makes us a counteroffer, and we demur, we compromise, we acquiesce. We follow him on a songwriting tour of Queens. Not so much of landmarks (though we pass by one of his former apartments on 48th Avenue, as well as Just Things, a kind of corner flea market that he pronounces “a Western Queens classic”), but of process.

See, Matthew is a practiced and prolific songwriter. He not only plays every single note (minus drums and his younger sister Eleanor’s vocals) on the Furnaces’ upcoming Widow City, but he wrote every note as well. By his own estimate, Matthew knocks out songs at the rate of “four to eight a week”—roughly 300 a year. And that’s the leftovers. Material that didn’t make Widow City or any of the Furnaces’ previous four full-lengths. Material, in fact, that never got recorded at all.

“It’s always most fun to write songs, both music and words, without an instrument, and without even a piece of paper,” says the near-35-year-old. “It’s a rhythmic thing. That’s why I don’t recommend that people, when they’re trying to write lyrics, ride their bike around New York City looking for inspiration. I think the bicycle—the rhythm of bike riding as opposed to stepping—is antithetical to the spirit of English, prose, or of verse, rhythm.” New York, says Matthew, is “the best place in the country to walk. It’s the best city for walking, so it’s the best city to write stuff, whether it’s music or words. That sounds pat, but that is how I think of it. I want to live here because it’s the best walking.”

And so we walk. We walk above the Vernon-Jackson subway stop, past personal Friedberger landmarks, behind the iconic neon Pepsi-Cola sign (though Matthew is a Coke loyalist), which hours later will glow red on the post-sundown darkness that is the East River, on down to Gantry Plaza State Park, four lonely piers jutting toward Manhattan.

“Even with the new high-rises,” Matthew says, “I still think this park is very nice.” Yes, it is. The sun is out (and blindingly bright as it reflects off the United Nations building). A breeze is blowing. And the planes overhead (right in LaGuardia’s flight pattern, it seems) are almost deafening. Which kind of kills the whole rhythmic thing, but still.

So now, situated on our pier of choice, Matthew opens his bag, which, over time, will yield all manner of material: greeting cards translated from English into one foreign language (say, Portuguese, French, or Chinese) and then back into English. Photographs. Found objects. And a variety of books. “It’s much easier on the recycling days,” he notes, retrieving a young-adult reader on great World Series games, and also The Great Crochet Bazaar Book, brought to you by the American School of Needlework. “To me,” he says, ” ‘The American School of Needlework Presents,’ that’s very evocative. I’d like to read that book. If you wrote a novel called The American School of Needlework Presents, I’d be coming to your reading, you know what I mean?”

And then there’s the catch of the day, the Holy Grail of accidentally discovered artifacts: a discarded CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, a/k/a catechism) notebook. The writing on the cover announces its previous ownership (Elena), as well as the date of study (May, 1997).

“The kingdom, or reign, of God,” Matthew reads, “is the power of God’s life and love in the world.”

Matthew takes the three books—World Series, crochet, and catechism— and balances them, with some effort, in his lap. The lesson begins.

“What you want to do,” he says, “is copy down evocative phrases that you like.” He pulls a phrase from each. Sue Penrod went to Brooklyn three times through the Jewish people, Matthew reads. The purse designed by Mary Thomas are all sisters and brothers in 1970 facing the Cincinnati Reds.

“Those are just random, automatic things,” he says. “I didn’t do a very good job with those, but the important thing is to be distracted while you’re doing it, and to amass. Let your taste come into play when it’s useful, in the editing process and the assembling process. You censor yourself much later in the process. You have to be very disciplined to not censor yourself until it’s appropriate.”


Widow City neither censors nor restrains itself; it’s going places, both literally and figuratively. The album bursts like a movie soundtrack played at fast-forward as the music twists from thrash to prog rock to twee pop with startling speed. Lyrically, it throws out more locations than anything since Hank Snow sang “I’ve Been Everywhere.” Song titles include “The Philadelphia Grand Jury,” the back-to-back “Clear Signal From Cairo” and “Egyptian Grammar,” “Japanese Slippers,” and, of course, the fictional but particularly relevant “Widow City.” Throw in internal mentions of New Mexico, Nice, Newark, Albuquerque, the Bahamas, an Italian greyhound, a French canal boat and a Kansas City cabinet, a Florida houseboat, an Arabian-tented library guest-room, a Calcutta necklace, a Hollywood chin band, and secondhand stores located in Centereach, Hempstead Hollow, and Mount Olivet, and you end up not only jet-lagged, but owing an excess luggage charge.

Matthew’s lessons, at least, have bathed these non sequiturs in a little more light. If we haven’t attained clarity in our own songwriting, we at least understand how lines like “I burned all my clothes with eucalyptus juice/Ripped out the floors and painted all the platforms puce” and “No more revenge cobbler or whiskey pie” came into being.

“You know, I might amass material in ways we’ve been talking about,” he says. “But once it gets to writing the songs, I’m thinking of Eleanor singing them. That’s the starting point, is having either something that fits her or doesn’t fit her, and therefore will be fun for me to make her do something that she doesn’t want to.”

Or maybe Eleanor can make those decisions herself.

“On Widow City,” he adds, “she was more involved, and so she wrote with me five of the songs’ lyrics. We did a method related to these kinds of methods. Eleanor did it with old magazines—old ’70s lifestyle magazines, women’s magazines. She went to the ads in the back and copied out interesting phrases and made these scripts—maybe it was about 10 pages on a computer. And then I used it to produce some songs.”


A week later we’re back in Manhattan, specifically the Mercury Lounge. The Furnaces are onstage in front of a couple hundred friends and industry types, bathed, both before and after the performance, in the light of 100 BlackBerries. Matthew is encased behind three keyboards, looking like another studied man behind the music, another backseat-driving, overshadowed, keyboard-playing half of a brother-sister combo: Richard Carpenter. But instead of gazing up at Eleanor, his Karen, with Richard’s peculiar mix of threatening adoration, Matthew, on the rare occasions when he does raise his head, only glances at the drummer, the bass player, the band. Eleanor is on her own. She must be really bored at practice. During instrumental breaks she kneels down, as if trying not to block the audience’s view. If you’re standing in the back, she completely disappears.

As on record, songs run together like some great, rushed (though not Rush’d) art-rock experiment. The closing lines of “Automatic Husband” (“It was made by a special commission of Navajo basketball coaches and blonde ladies”) segue into the opening salvo of “Ex-Guru” (“One of those blonde ladies had a certain hold on me/I went to all her seminars by the airport in the Doubletree”). These words don’t make any more sense now, but on the other hand they do, sort of. The whole show, dominated by 10 tracks off Widow City, takes less than an hour. Or about the time it takes the nearby F train to curl back into Queens.


The Fiery Furnaces play Hiro Ballroom November 3, hiroballroom.com

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More Fiery Furnace–Derived, Potentially Exhausting Weirdness

You can’t accuse the Fiery Furnaces of being lazy. Here’s the third and fourth records we’ve heard from Matthew Friedberger in 10 months, this time two packaged-together solo albums so sister Eleanor can sit at home and watch Nick at Nite reruns. No running concepts (or grandmothers, thankfully) unify these 29 cuts, but motifs do seep in—he still likes the organ, as well as the whole schizophrenic song-cutting style that exhilarates fans and makes foes want to die. Winter Women is his attempt at a more “pop” sound, but that’s mostly overshadowed by the conversational style of “singing” he employs throughout. As for its twin, the dark, funked-out “Do You Like Blondes?” hints at an ability to assimilate into coherency, but good luck understanding the more conceptual Holy Ghost Language School‘s running narrative. Without Sis, Matthew still does just fine, but let’s be honest: You know the style by now, and despite a slightly more electro feel here, you’re still left wondering if the whole “I make erratic high art for art’s sake” gambit gets a bit shticky when there gets to be so much of it.

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Dream Theater

I avoid most modern American indie-rock records for the same reason I avoid the ham-and-cheese wraps sold at my local supermarket: They are bland, poorly made, and dependent on limp and soggy ingredients. I only bought the Fiery Furnaces’ 2004 release
Blueberry Boat because I kept hearing complaints about how long the songs were; in my bizarro world, I read this as code for “risky” or “ambitious.” Brooklyn brother-and-sister tag team Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger’s breakthrough was a tricky, wordy mix of basement prog and jittery pop, with a charisma that didn’t fit the first-class Postal Service stamp of mediocrity so many MOR alternative acts stick on their work with misplaced pride. It didn’t apologize for its braininess, and it wasn’t afraid to fall on its face.

The Furnaces’ latest resembles Boat more than it does last year’s partially spoken-word family-history oddity Rehearsing My Choir. The band’s style, though, still largely consists of nervous tics, never settling for one tune when 10 will do, unleashing sickly funhouse synths at inopportune moments, and rushing to get all those words out. It’s a unique and occasionally maddening formula, but what makes this supremely rinky-dink fourth-grade-production-of–Pirates of Penzance racket captivating is the unflappable way they sell all this circuitous dream logic, instead of just reverting to uncaring, insufferable twee, like undergrads with toy instruments busking in the commons to the amusement of no one. Plus, Eleanor’s half-deadpan, half-flushed vocalizing gets stronger with every album—she’s a grand eulogizer for a dead music-hall style that probably never existed, a perfect fit for the conversationally surreal words she speaks/sings. Tea’s Rory Gilmore rock might not be O.C.-friendly, and there are definitely moments when I wish they’d pick an angle and stick with it. But as far as I’m concerned, they can fly to the moon and back as often as they please, as long as the results are this energetic and inventive.

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Winning Teddy Bears at the Ringtoss, and Capturing the Friedbergers

As masterpieces go, the Fiery Furnaces’ Blueberry Boat was the swollen periwinkle stuffed panda your boyfriend wins at the state fair. First you’re all “how sweet, he’s trying so hard,” but uncountable hours and dollars and softballs whizzing lamely past milk bottles later, you suspect this spastic effort is less tribute to your undeniable awesomeness than symptom of his gnarled neuroses — and like hell that thing’s gonna fit in your Toyota. The jitters Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger concealed beneath their guise as curious visitors from the Eno System on Gallowsbird’s Bark here blossomed into genuine mania; the sibs’ ingenious tunelet stitching, while bold, also masked a distrust of their own poppy facility.

Oh yeah, as masterpieces go, Blueberry Boat was a blast. Better ambitious indie goofs should channel their compulsions into pomo brainteasers than douse augmented major sevenths in vermouth or stamp “avant-garde” on random tantrums. Eleanor’s slightly prim, amused intelligence presented even nonsensical lyrics as open-ended allusions — no wonder she and her bro spawned a Da Vinci Code for pop blogs. Yet for those beguiled by the seemingly absurdist surfaces of Blueberry Boat‘s nautical free flow, reading Michael Barthel’s exhaustive demonstration of narrative consistency (at claps.blogspot.com) was like learning that “Fixing a Hole” really was about Paul shooting heroin.

EP is your standard jumble of singles, B sides, and other leftovers, but even flawed cuts — “let the dude sing” dips, Gallowsbird’s Bark standout “Tropical Ice-Land” revved till instrumental clutter overwhelms the prosody, larks where the Furnaces disappear into alliterative whimsy — reward in their discrete way. And the first three songs, structurally flawless, accomplish as much in 10:47 as Blueberry Boat did at more than seven times that length — and, not coincidentally, cover less ground than any random 10-minute snippet of the full-length. On the opener, “Single Again,” a simple keyboard repetition grows increasingly confused with each verse, neatly paralleling the narrative conceit (whittled down to sparse phrases) of Eleanor stumbling from one abusive marriage to the next, while the guitar leads an unsung chorus that’s almost a parody of release.

Cramming basic song structures with intricate nuance is as useful an escape hatch from the trap of pop formalism as the iPod-gone-wild tune mashing of Blueberry Boat. Yet the Friedbergers appear wary of focused concision — they’ve already announced an upcoming two-disc set, including a full-length “radio play” featuring their grandma. As masterpieces go, sounds like a blast. But is there room on your bed for another massive stuffed panda?