Illinois expats residing in Brooklyn, the brother-sister art rock band Fiery Furnaces has, in two albums, successfully taken on large chunks of 20th Century music and spat back explosive fragments reformed in moving, experimental, funky odes celebrating impossible-to-pronounce places, obscure baseball greats, granny’s cooking and the King of Spain. Sonically dominated by Eleanor Friedberger’s cranky, cajoling, off-kilter cabaret voice, but carried to greatness by brother Mathew’s command of multiple instruments, relentless harmonic quirkiness and reluctant, discordant, jagged guitar, Fiery Furnaces is both a summation of last century’s artiness and a clarion call to this hesitant one’s possibilities.
Other bands that match Fiery Furnaces in scope, chops and alternative visions are Le Tigre, French Kicks, East River Pipe, Magnetic Fields and Natural History. But go further back to Young Marble Giants, the smart (and smartassy) Timbuk 3, the contemplative distancing of the underrated The Facts of Life. It is, however, Slapp Happy — literate lyrics, iconoclastic song structure and length and healthy cynicism (descended from Kurt Weill) — that best prefigures the Fiery Furnace aesthetic.
For all their metaphysical goofiness, the siblings punctuate their spastic colorations with authentic rock language. Unable to maintain a full head of steam from one song to another, the band prefers sharp bright bursts, complex mis-struck notes that upset the tempo, providing bridges to the next idea. On Gallowsbird’s Bark (the title a reference to the complaints of the soon-to-be-hanged), the heady ideas cascade out of nowhere. The bohemain disdain for convention makes some of the songs arch, wry and abstract. But high points, and there are many, include the beautiful ragged opener, “South Is Only a Home,” and the restless and fertile “Inca Rag/Name Game,” which contains this little knot of wit: “Appealing in the Hague say / Mummy mummy mummy / I was listening to classic VH when I pulled a H Singh / Drank myself to a stupor, ears started to ring / And I’ll go to finally ALS and type my brains away.”
This splendid, disorderly conduct is enlarged upon in the brilliant Blueberry Boat. For one thing, Mathew’s urgent voice is used more; secondly, it draws together that which was disparate on the debut. With five songs that run close to or beyond eight minutes, the duo allows ideas to evolve organically; basic motifs become mesmerizing, novel wholes collecting riffs from children’s tunes, cabaret, jazzy blues and novelty songs. In less extreme arrangements that gain deeper consequence from their thickness, Mathew’s role is more adventurous, replacing frenetic guitar with strings, oddball sounds and intimate piano treatments while retaining the European ramblings, South American beats and punkish chords. Eleanor’s singing is more assured, delivering torrential lyrics that are, by turns, surreal, funny, global and touchy. The words probe an evanescent world of nostalgic charm, glimmering lights on the river, outcasts in search of virgin territory.
Both albums were mixed by Nicolas Vernhes; who also plays drums. Blueberry Boat uses studio effects, Vernhes’s drum kit and David Muller’s percussion as arrows in its rhythmic quiver. The Friedbergers challenge our notions of what a band can do with a 4/4 beat. Technologically and musically innovative, they create huge expectations with each passing serious orchestrated riff or distaff ironical tidbit. Like the increased concentration of a man on the gallows, the Fiery Furnaces distinctively make our world fleshier.