The Fiery Furnaces | Concerned for Your Well-Being

prof_furnaces_sm.jpgWhat’s amazing is that they can pull off an unlikely cross between seeming radio-playability and the well-documented Fiery Furnaces sound.





If you’re musically lazy, it’s easy to classify The Fiery Furnaces’ albums as "difficult." They’re super-produced, complicated-as-hell, purposefully long prog rock tomes of the highest order—a friend of mine once described the band as a cross between Yo La Tengo and Frank Zappa, which comparison I happily steal and pass off as my own—and, even to someone musically adventurous and patient, don’t always present themselves as the masterpieces that they are on the first few listens. It stands to reason, then, that interviewing either Eleanor or Matt Friedberger, the brother-sister team that make up the Furnaces, would be difficult and intimidating as well. And it was, but only by virtue of the fact that I had to call them at the hotel they were staying at, and got hung up on or connected to the wrong room the first three times that I called. That and I was told that I’d be interviewing Eleanor, when in fact I got Matt. But Matt was friendly and accessible and not at all like how I imagined talking to one or the other of them would be.

"I’m afraid you’re going to have to talk to me," Matt apologized when it was finally straightened out which room I needed to be connected to. "Did you have difficulty getting through? I was afraid you were going to have difficulty with the hotel, finding the room and stuff. Was it difficult?" This kind of concern unnerves me. I had imagined him in a cave surrounded by gadgets and smoke and speaking polysyllabically, not sitting in a hotel room concerned that the mildly retarded individual that was supposed to be interviewing him was having trouble getting through.


Well, okay, I didn’t really imagine him in a cave surrounded by gadgets; I only did up until the first time I saw them play live. In person, Eleanor and Matt look like normal enough people, despite that their music gets even more complicated than it is on the albums when they play it live. That and there are huge pictures of them on the front and back cover of their newest album, Widow City, and they look normal enough in those. Strange, considering there is a total of one picture of them in the liner notes of their five previous albums ("I hate that picture in Bitter Tea. The only good thing about it is that you can’t really see our faces."). So, why the huge pictures on the cover of Widow City? "Just masochism; I can’t look at the cover. I don’t mind the cover with Eleanor, but then there’s me on the back, horrified."

What I was saying earlier about how their music finds a way to get even more complicated live is this: listening to their albums, a great deal of their songs sound something more like two or three or four songs all mashed together, with some reoccurring line or theme that ties them all together. Live, Matt and Eleanor moosh all their songs even more together, often playing the set as one really long Furnaces medley, in the process taking bits and pieces of all of their songs and breaking them out and apart and tossing them all around, so that they sound pretty much nothing like how they do on the albums. "When we played [shows] like that, we didn’t change [the set list] every night; it’s just how it was arranged; we thought that was a more interesting thing to do," Matt tells me when I ask how and why they do it that way. "But now on this tour we’re not playing medleys. This fall tour is the most conventional, I guess, because [the songs] to me aren’t really any different at all. There’s not much disguising the songs; there’s not much reinterpreting the songs for this tour. But, I guess you have to do that sometimes to make it surprising when you change it all up again."

It’s fitting, then, that Widow City at 59 minutes long is one of their shorter LPs (to give you an idea, they released a CD called EP that was 41 minutes long; both Blueberry Boat and Bitter Tea clock in at over 70), and that most of the songs on it are in the four-minute-or-so range, without as many parts and structural complications as songs and albums past. 2006’s Bitter Tea proved that they can write poppy, hooky songs if they feel compelled ("Benton Harbor Blues," "Police Sweater Blood Vow," "Teach Me Sweetheart"…I could go on), and it leads one to wonder if they’re making a conscious effort to be more radio-friendly. "No one accuses us of that!" Matt says. "It’s not like there are people out there that are disappointed that we’re not more adventurous. The only people who criticize us are the people that want us to be lamer." What’s amazing is that they can pull off an unlikely cross between seeming radio-playability and the well-documented Fiery Furnaces sound; aside from the aforementioned "Police Sweater Blood Vow," listen to Widow‘s "Duplexes of the Dead," "Ex-Guru," or "Right by Conquest" if you don’t believe me.

Really, though, if you’re scared, now’s the time to see them. For one thing, they’re phenomenal. And playing the songs more or less as they appear on the albums, while more normal when compared against the rest of the world, will at least temporarily make them more accessible for those of you who are looking for an in. And Eleanor and Matt are funny and caring and smart as hell, but who knows how long it will be before they become hermits in a cave surrounded by gadgets and smoke. That’s what all good geniuses inevitably do, isn’t it? | Pete Timmermann

The Fiery Furnaces play Sat. Oct. 27 at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room in St. Louis.

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