Rootsy or folk? Post-punk or blues futura? The answer is: Yes. THE FIERY FURNACES might be all over the map, but Margaret Wappler finds out one thing’s dead certain—no one else is gettin’ in the band.
Originally published in Arthur No. 8 (January, 2004)
Listening to the Fiery Furnaces for the first time is like finding a pirate radio station while driving through the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. The map swears you’re 100 miles outside Murfreesboro but in the pitch-blackness, can you trust something as arbitrary as coordinates on a piece of paper to define place? What really locates you is that station at the end of the dial, with its strange accent and colloquialisms.
The Fiery Furnaces—Matt and Eleanor Friedberger, a brother-and-sister duo residing in Brooklyn—are behind the latest pirate station in rock: they’ve flipped on a switch and defined a special place between the forest and the mountains. Sixteen songs appear on their debut Gallowsbird’s Bark (Rough Trade); it’s a trunk show of delicious oddities, lovingly stitched and fringed with twirls of piano, itchy funked guitar solos, lyrics like “In the Cracker Barrel dumpster I found a bag; Red-white striped, I opened it—gag” tickled along by prickly cool rhythms. It’s blues, post-punk and a traveling vaudeville show pieced together with equal parts confidence, naivete (is it going too far to suggest that songs all about foreign lands is a tad Peter Pan?) and a kind of manic curiosity that sees the Friedbergers grabbing hold of a sound from one decade, giving it a good shake and then setting it down and running off to the next decade—or several ones previous—leaving the listener in an enjoyably vertiginous tailspin. Matt might be a little too fond of those bluesy solos that made more than a few Led Zeppelin songs deflate and I cringe each time Eleanor sings that line “Mummy, Mummy, Mummy”—though I’m not sure if it’s because I really love it or can’t stand it—but who cares? The Fiery Furnaces’ gawky moments pose problems for the listener and themselves that are actually interesting.
The first 15 minutes of my Saturday afternoon conversation with the Furnaces were spent catching up (by the way, I went to junior high and high school in Oak Park, Ill, with Eleanor) but soon enough, it turned to other things—blues, identity and the comfort of being a brother/sister band. Throughout our talk Matt, four years her senior, and Eleanor played a funny game of cat and mouse—teasing, then supporting—sometimes sounding like the squabbling siblings from Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums. Here are some outtakes:Continue reading