Monday, August 10, 2009

Music Library: The Fiery Furnaces

All Fiery Furnaces today! Practically the most novel and novelistic band working today, the FF remind me of the works of Thomas Pynchon (which was the premise for one of my Powell's blog posts from last year) in that they are esoteric, frenetic, omnivorous, challenging, and funny as hell. The core of the band are the siblings Matt and Eleanor Friedberger, who grew up, I believe, in a J.D. Salinger short story. Their glitchy sound, all The Who-meets-Daft Punk-on-Ritalin, is definitely not for everyone, but they've proved quite resilient, despite their eccentricities. Anyway, here's my take on their ouevre.

  • Gallowsbird's Bark,
  • Live London Calling 2003,
  • "Winter" (from Rough Trade's 25th anniversary compilation),
  • "Tropical Iceland (Acoustic Version)" (from StarTime International SuperCuts),
  • SBN Session,
  • "One More Time" (from Uncut Magazine's White Riot Vol 1: A Tribute To The Clash),
  • "Two Fat Feet (Alternate Version)" from Uncut's Top 15 for 2003, and
  • "Bright Blue Tie (Alternate Version)" from Fluxblog.

Man! I've gotten ahold of just about everything FF I could find, but this does appear extreme. Anyway, the first FF album Gallowsbird's Bark was bluesy enough that reviews tended to lump them in with the garage-revivalist White Stripes. But the FF had a different agenda, and these songs - easily the most direct and accessible of their career - point towards the grand ambition to follow. The final three tracks, which were originally intended to be sequenced together, have the most forward thrust, even though one is a traditional song most notable for being recorded by Dock Boggs. The final song "We Got Back The Plague" is also the most explicitly political track of the FF's career, a somewhat sympathetic portrayal of George W. Bush that nonetheless points to him as the locus of the plague that has fallen upon the land. Excellent, excellent, excellent. Live London Calling 2003 is a bootleg that showcases the FF live style, in which snippets of songs are re-mixed together and re-cast in different music. I'll say here that I love attending live FF shows, but I don't get much pleasure from listening to recordings of their live shows. Their sound blossoms in the studio, and the live shows, fascinating though they are when you're there, are too experiential to be a fun listen later. "Winter" is a cover of the Fall track from Hex Enduction Hour, and bless them for it. The acoustic "Tropical Iceland" is rather beautiful, as is the alternate, piano-only version of "Bright Blue Tie" that I found on Fluxblog. The SBN Session is a download from the FF website, although I only kept two of the three tracks, as the last appears on the album EP. "One More Time" is a dubby Clash cover of an un-dubby song that the Clash themselved dubbed up on Sandinista!. The alternate version of "Two Fat Feet" is too similar to the original for me to figure out why it's labeled an alternate version, so I'll probably let that one go. Pynchon equivalent of Gallowsbird's Bark: The Crying of Lot 49.


  • Tropical Ice-land Single,
  • Live at the Mod Club Toronto, and
  • Blueberry Boat.

The single includes the version of "Tropical Ice-land" that popped up on EP the next year, plus the version of "We Got Back The Plague" from the SBN Session of the prior year. The bootleg further demonstrates for me the disparity between how much I like their live shows and how much I don't like listening to bootlegs of their live shows. Might delete it. The album Blueberry Boat is, well, equally brilliant and exhausting. I find it hard to concentrate on the album for the whole length these days, but I can space out while listening and still find plenty to engage my brain with only sporadic attention. If you go to the Wikipedia entry on it, a link at the bottom will take you here. I wish Pynchon's Against The Day had been released by the time I wrote this, because it is a more apt comparison than Nabokov's Pale Fire, but otherwise, I still stand by that article.


  • EP,
  • KEXP Session April 6, 2005,
  • Rehearsing My Choir,
  • "I'm Leaving" from Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough, and
  • "Norwegian Bird (This Bird Has Flown)" from This Bird Has Flown: A 40th Anniversary Tribute To Rubber Soul.

EP is a full-length album containing singles, b-sides, and a couple of new tracks. It opens with three separate tracks that probably should be a single suite: "Single Again," "Here Comes the Summer," and "Evergreen." The rerecording of "Tropical Ice-land" from the single is quite fun, as is the beautiful Bowie-esque "Sing For Me." The KEXP Session features early versions of tracks from Bitter Tea, which would be released the following year. Rehearsing My Choir is a notoriously difficult album, even for me. This is another concept album, this time about the life of the Friedberger's grandmother Olga Sarantos, with vocals by Ms. Sarantos, although Matt Friedberger released a statement explaining (or "explaining," perhaps) that parts of the song are separate from the character Sarantos is playing, who is, after all, based on herself. Clear? Well, Ms. Sarantos sure has some creative grandchildren, and they definitely love her, but the album isn't much fun for us outsiders. Ms. Sarantos's voice isn't tuneful and the playful back-and-forth between her and Eleanor might have been fun for the Friedbergers, but not worth the time it took to parse. And I will still give the FF huge kudos for being willing to create such a weird and intimate project. The Junior Kimbrough cover is surprisingly bluesy and straightforward, while the Beatles cover recasts the song in the style of mid-60s Dylan, which is pretty cool. Pynchon equivalent of EP: Slow Learner. Pynchon equivalent of Rehearsing My Choir: that picture of high school-aged Pynchon that newspapers insist on using.

2006: Bitter Tea. This is the year the FF gelled into an odd singles band. There's no overriding concept to Bitter Tea, and most of the songs are inscrutable without the payoff of study that made Blueberry Boat such fun. This album has some of my favorite FF songs: "Teach Me Sweetheart," "Police Sweater Blood Vow," and "Benton Harbor Blues," in particular. It is probably the catchiest of all their albums, and the one I am most likely to randomly spin of their entire collection. Pynchon equivalent: Vineland.

2007: Widow City. This one, like Bitter Tea, lurches all over the place without having a central concept. It similarly features gorgeous, awesome, and befuddling songs, and the Friedberger's storytelling skills are finely honed on some tracks, especially "The Old Hag Is Sleeping" and "Ex-Guru." I believe that I read that the FFs were attempting to create a 70s-style AM album on this one, a goal that they failed completely to reach, but they failed rather gloriously. Pynchon equivalent: still Vineland.

2008: Remember. So, you know how I've been saying that I don't like listening to bootlegs of the FF live shows? This is a live album with each track stitched together from different performances recorded with wildly varying sound quality. And those tracks were usually already cut-up and re-created with new melodies, as well. So this is a Frankenstein's monster made from other Frankenstein's monsters. I can't listen to it. The album warns you: please do not attempt to listen to all at once, it says on the cover. Frankly, I can't hang. I've barely made it through a single song, let alone the entire album, a two-disc affair that includes versions of what seems like every single FF song, but isn't. When I hear people talk about how they hate the FF, I think of how this album makes me feel, and I understand, I really do. Again, I offer the FF kudos for attempting to do something different from the run-of-the-mill live album (and I kinda hate regular ol' live rock albums, too), but this thing just hurts my head. Pynchon equivalent: being Sam Anderson.

2009: I'm Going Away. The newest FF album! Even after feeling confounded, annoyed, and alienated by Remember, an album I long to forget, I eagerly bought this as soon as I could. And this album brings back some of the directness of Gallowsbird's Bark (possibly because of Eleanor taking a lead role in writing lyrics) while using the stylistic tricks and turns of the previous albums more sparingly (but effectively) and producing (whoa!) more conventional songs. Excellent stuff. Pynchon equivalent: I haven't read it yet, but I'm going to say Inherent Vice.


godoggo 11:04 AM, August 11, 2009  

So, since I'm kind of clueless about current pop, especially since I fried my car radio a few years back, I've been keeping my eye out for bloggers with good taste (i.e. roughly similar to mine) to help me along a bit, in hopes that they'd write posts, like, say, this one. So thank you.

Hayden Childs 12:32 PM, August 11, 2009  

Glad you found it useful, godoggo!

I just fixed a formatting issue, which should help readers with the last few paragraphs. Looked fine on Safari last night, but on IE today, it was all jumbled up.

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