Furnaces elicit fiery debate: Where do you fall?

by Beacon Staff • April 23, 2008

PRO - Brendan McCarthy

The Fiery Furnaces are back in town for the second time this school year, and they are one brother/sister duo whose antics won't annoy you. In fact, you'll be entertained because The Fiery Furnaces don't waste their time bickering; Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger get out thier issues through their quarreling, schizophrenic musical sounds.

The band's latest, Widow City, released last fall, is their most clean album to date. But that doesn't mean you can't trace its roots. The record continues the Furnace style, featuring songs within songs, tempo-shifts popping up whenever they feel like it and, of course, the signature disjunctive storytelling in the lyrics.

The Fiery Furnaces let us jump on their float in the parade through Widow City, an extravagant musical performance in a unique, coherent world. The opener, "The Philadelphia Grand Jury," is like a journey through the history of pop music, pulling influence from the string arrangements of Electric Light Orchestra to the heavy rock guitar of Led Zeppelin. The track begins with an urgent beat before descending to slow, whirling, harmonized guitar riffs; then there's a cheery breakdown before the distorted strumming and layered vocals of a big chorus. All this is set to a narrative about a defendant on trial: "Make sure that they notarize my will/Make sure Mom don't look at the news," Eleanor cheekily sings as her brother keeps the beat.

If it sounds convoluted, that's because it is-but it's well worth it. Though tracks such as "My Egyptian Grammar" or "Restorative Beer" fall on more conventional ground than most of the Furnace tunes, the band's knack for theatrical twists and turns remains. And they always keep fans guessing. When you're listening to The Furnaces, you're actively listening. And for that, the payoff is all the more satisfying.

CON - Mike Desjardin

You've no doubt heard of the flashy, brother/sister rock duo The Fiery Furnaces, as the Brooklyn-based band has been ubiquitous in the indie scene after five years and five records. But don't bother wasting an evening seeing them.

On 2007's Window City, the track "Uncle Charlie" serves as an excellent representation of the band's style. The song is short-a paltry two minutes and 16 seconds-but by the time it has finished, you're left questioning not only the sound of the music itself, but the philosophy behind conceiving something that completely negates the kind of synth-pop the Fiery Furnaces would be better off adopting.

"Uncle Charlie" sprawls and convulses in a pile of its own confusion, never quite reaching one-dimensional summer pop or the three-dimensional dream narrative they're striving for. The production resembles an imbalanced fraction or a lengthy, messy decimal that seems hellbent on defying simplicity and singularity. Messy guitar riffs interrupt harsh, displaced electronic pulses while Eleanor Friedberger recites stale, melancholic, free-verse poetry.

Other tracks on Window City (such as "Ex-Guru") are still chaotic, but at least sound bubbly enough to pass as simple pop. Listening to the album is frustrating; the group obviously knows how to produce simple-sounding, infectious tracks, but seems reluctant to do so. The result is a maddeningly confused collection of ballads that cancel themselves out.

The Fiery Furnaces try a lot of things but they never seem to get it right. In an industry where musicians make evolution and progression a necessity from one album to the next, The Fiery Furnaces have an incredibly slim margin for error.

Window City is a very small sample size, but in the bigger picture, the band's hit-to-miss ratio is embarrassing. There are better ways to spend an evening than to take a journey through a half-decade of experimental mediocrity.