NEW YORK—Fans of the The Fiery Furnaces got a surprise a few weeks ago when the band played a semi-secret show at Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge. The songs were—of all things—recognizable.
It was an unexpected development from a brother-sister duo that thrives on rearranging its already difficult songs into entirely new live versions. Fans have come to expect catchy tunes twisted into thorny experiments, or slow songs hammered out at jet speed. This is a band that used to open and close its concerts with utterly mangled versions of The Champs’ 1958 classic “Tequila.”
That’s in the past, at least for the time being. Earlier this month, The Fiery Furnaces released “Widow City” (Thrill Jockey), the most accessible album of their frequently head-scratching career. Inspired by the sound of 1970s classic rock, the album includes several could-be singles such as the hard-driving “Navy Nurse,” the swinging pop tune “Restorative Beer,” even a love song called “Ex-Guru.” Matthew Friedberger, who plays every instrument on the disc save for the drums, has reined in his attention-deficit approach to songwriting, and his younger sister Eleanor adds bluesy moans to her vocal repertoire.
If The Fiery Furnaces were aiming for a breakthrough album, this would be it—but they’re not. A few days after the show, at a bar not far from Eleanor’s apartment, the Friedbergers seem amused by the very idea.
“If people like it more,” Matthew said with a laugh, “that’s their problem.”
That perverse attitude has made The Fiery Furnaces a cult band even within the rarefied world of indie rock. In 2004 their second album, “Blueberry Boat” (Rough Trade), became an underground hit among fans of literate rock acts like Okkervil River and The Decembrists. Critics loved their impossibly verbose lyrics full of proper nouns, brand names and unusual words like “lathback” and “killick.” The taste-making Web site Pitchfork praised the album’s “engrossing complexity” and even Entertainment Weekly called it “fearlessly fiery.”
The siblings made for good press: They were hip and eccentric, and often argued entertainingly during interviews. (During this one, they bickered about tracks on their previous album until Eleanor finally gave up: “Whatever, Matt.”) It also helped that Eleanor had begun dating Alex Kapranos, leader of the Scottish band Franz Ferdinand. Along with two versatile touring musicians—drummer Bob D’Amico, and bassist Jason Loewenstein of the band Sebadoh—The Fiery Furnaces became a formidable live band, and a high-profile slot on Wilco’s 2004 tour brought wider exposure.
Then came 2005’s “Rehearsing My Choir.” It featured the siblings’ 83-year-old grandmother as lead vocalist, narrating her life story accompanied by frenetic keyboards and ever-changing melodies. For many critics, it was too much: Pitchfork called it “exhausting and fruitless.” Unconcerned, the band followed up with last year’s “Bitter Tea,” featuring songs chopped into chunks and run backwards. It met a similar reception.
Suddenly, The Fiery Furnaces were one of those “weird” bands, supposedly beloved only by pretentious poseurs. (A recent article in Paste magazine poked fun at rock snobs “pretending to like The Fiery Furnaces.”) Meantime, the band’s label was running into financial problems, and the once-hot Friedbergers began looking for another home.
In July they found it in Thrill Jockey, the Chicago-based indie whose roster includes the similarly adventurous band Tortoise. It was Tortoise’s drummer, John McEntire, who mixed “Widow City” and introduced Matthew to Bettina Richards, the label’s founder.
Richards said she wasn’t concerned by the band’s history of polarizing its audience. “In fact, it’s a reason I was particularly interested in them,” she said. She added that she has no plans to commercialize or soften the band’s music. “We just have to hand it out to the people who won’t enjoy it, and let the people who will enjoy it, find it.”
More polarization may be in the future. Among the projects The Friedbergers are discussing (perhaps seriously, perhaps not) are a collection of arias from Matthew’s unreleased rock operas; an album with lyrics written mostly by fans; and a ballet based on Amerian Sign Language.
“We’d like music to be a career, but we can’t make decisions based on business,” Matthew said, as if appalled at the suggestion. “That’s still against the rules.”
FIVE FIERY GREAT TRACKS
Matthew Friedberger denies that “Widow City” is a “singles collection,” but could he be wrong? Here are five album tracks that ought to be on modern rock radio right now:
“Philadelphia Grand Jury.” You can almost hear Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” in this tragic mini-rock-opera: “Make sure that they notarize my will/Make sure mom don’t look at the news.”
“Duplexes of the Dead.” Eleanor Friedberger’s voice has never sounded so sultry than on this track, which veers between bluesy verses and a hard-driving hook.
“Ex-Guru.” Eleanor turns this chugging pop number into a love song and a hate song all at once: “She means nothing to me now/I tell myself that every day.”
“Navy Nurse.” A thudding, bottom-heavy rock track that Eleanor has cited as her favorite vocal performance.
“Restorative Beer.” Dramatic and swooning, this may be the album’s hidden hit. The chorus makes for an oddly catchy anthem: “I want a restorative beer/To take my mind off/these tears.”