The first time I heard about the Fiery Furnaces, the reviewer compared Gallowsbird’s Bark to the White Stripes, which just seems bizarre in retrospect. Brother-sister duos (ostensibly, in the Stripes’ case), an old blues cover, uh… short songs? By the time Blueberry Boat came out, though, no-one was mistaking Matt and Eleanor Friedberger for Jack and Meg White or anyone else, and ever since the Furnaces have almost made a game out of refusing to settle into any one sound or genre or even set of instrumentation long enough for people to get much of a bead on them. Their live shows, if anything, tend that way even more than their recorded work; 2008’s Remember cut together longer songs like “Quay Cur” from multiple live takes, some of it was recorded in the studio, and the music was organized into long, rapid-fire suites of tracks from throughout the band’s career.
Given that the Furnaces’ protean live show makes guessing the arrangement almost as much fun as actually hearing the band, it was weirdly enjoyable to hear them play such a stripped-down, relatively conventional set when they came to the Attic last November. I’ve written about the Attic before, and if you’ve read that you might be forgiven for wondering what a band of the Furnaces’ relative magnitude is doing cramming itself into, well, an attic. The quick answer is that Attic mastermind Peter Bradley also works for the local student radio station, and since he was having the Furnaces do a brief set and interview anyway, why not do it somewhere where you could invite others?
The result saw only Sebadoh vet/FF member Jason Loewenstein playing his regular instrument; in addition to Loewenstein’s bass and Eleanor Friedberger’s voice, the band’s setup for their 35 minute set consisted of the house’s Wurlitzer Funmaker organ played by Matt Friedberger and the quasi-random assortment of containers Bob D’Amico nimbly pressed into service as a drum kit. Except for a mini-Widow City montage of “Duplexes of the Dead/Automatic Husband/Ex-Guru”, they even stuck to individual tracks for the most part. Best of all, they played a disproportionate amount of material from 2005’s poppy EP, especially if you count “Tropical-Iceland” (which first appeared on Gallowsbird’s Bark but was remade for EP).
I guess if you were looking for some of the Fiery Furnaces’ semi-traditional live madness, this show might have been disappointing, but for a band that tends to get attention as much for their restlessness and disregard of convention (and dislike of Radiohead, which Matt Friedberger had fun playfully discussing during the crowd interview) the fact is they write really excellent songs. The Wurlitzer may not have been the band’s, but Friedberger was able to coax a pretty astonishing variety of sounds out of it, and even without a normal drum kit Loewenstein and D’Amico proved to be an able and sympathetic rhythm section. Eleanor Friedburger’s casually commanding vocal performance was probably the most striking part of the semi-unplugged Furnaces, though; she’s the kind of frontwoman whose charisma comes out as much from acting like she’s not performing as anything else, and the audience was rapt throughout.
Even before the interview, it was clear that stripped down and fit into fairly conventional form the Fiery Furnaces’ music is so potent not just because of the siblings’ compositional and performing skills, but because of the balance it keeps between Matt’s nervy enthusiasm and Eleanor’s diffident cool. Either on its own might result in something unpalatable (you can think of a bunch of bands that either try too hard or don’t try hard enough pretty quickly, right?), but mixed just the right way it makes the Furnaces a surprisingly ingratiating and admirable band, one that can impress even without their normal live extravaganza.