Right off the bat, I want you to forget everything you know about the Fiery Furnaces. Forget that the band is essentially a brother/sister combo. Forget all the comparisons to other artists. Pretend that this EP is their first and only release. Then forget about what normally constitutes an EP-length release. More importantly, erase from your mind that this record is a collection of B-sides, singles, and outtakes. I want you to forget all of this because any of the above information will only fill your head with preconceived expectations. Such expectations only work to subvert the intended impact of the music, which is a real shame when the music is good. And make no mistake about it; in this case, the music is damn good. I daresay, even at this early point, that the Fiery Furnaces have delivered one of the first truly great full-lengths of 2005.
That’s right; this is a full-length release by almost anyone’s standards except maybe the Fiery Furnaces themselves. Ten songs at just over 40 minutes is only an EP if your last record was twice as long. As for this being a collection of supposed odds and ends, one might automatically imagine a thematically incoherent assortment of lesser quality tracks, as is often the case with these types of releases. Think again. Listening to the Fiery Furnaces’ EP, there is nothing to suggest that all 10 songs here weren’t written recently for the express purpose of this release alone, even if that isn’t actually the case. The material not only stands up to the stellar tracks on the band’s two previous releases—it surpasses them.
For those who have not actually heard the music of the prolific Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, let me quickly catch you up to speed. First of all, despite what you may have heard, they don’t sound like the White Stripes. Even a slightly less lazy comparison to other duos like Mates of State or Dresden Dolls would be inaccurate because unlike all of those artists, the Friedbergers don’t allow themselves to be limited by instrumentation. By working with a more sonically rich canvas, they manage to transcend the duo gimmick.
Their 2003 debut Gallowsbird’s Bark was a lengthy collection of pop songs featuring howling bluesy guitar, piano, and deceptively catchy vocals, mostly provided by the sweet-voiced Eleanor. Nine months later, they released Blueberry Boat, which left fans and critics alike scratching their heads. Their second record was essentially an anti-pop epic—an 80-minute collection of lengthy, progressive “rock operas” that shifted in tone and tempo so frequently that it was difficult to discern when one track ended and the next began. Still, like one of those patterned, goofy 3D pictures that present you with an image if you stare at it long enough, Blueberry Boat was deemed magnificent by those who waded through its intricacies enough times to get the big picture.
With EP, the Fiery Furnaces not only bring the best of both worlds, but they bring us something more—a record to dance to. While not a dance record by typical genre standards, EP succeeds in tapping into body-moving beats that are hard to come by in both of their previous releases. While the future suggests that upcoming Furnaces releases will continue to push the envelope, at least with this release, they’ve proven that they can write great, focused pop songs.
The first thing you’ll notice is that the guitar often takes a backseat to the piano or synthesizer lines while the drum beats keep the music upbeat. “Single Again” kicks off the record with a minute-long techno synthesizer groove over a straight-up 4/4 beat; it rocks as much or more than most of the guitar-based music on the shelves these days. This song bleeds right into “Here Comes the Summer”, an upbeat mover and one of the catchier numbers the Furnaces have offered up to now. The songs remain short and infectious for the first half of the disc, all the way through the new, rocking version of Gallowsbird’s Bark track “Tropical-Iceland”.
Diehard Blueberry Boat fans will be glad to note that EP still presents the ambitious, complex, effects-filled and melodically adept songwriting of that release. Thankfully missing, however, are Blueberry Boat‘s more obnoxiously masturbatory aspects. Even “Smelling Cigarettes”, which features no less than six distinct “movements”, ranging from vaudevillian romp to mellow, instrumental freeform, manages to hold its own identity. Similarly, more challenging pieces such as “Duffer St. George”, “Cousin Chris”, and “Sullivan’s Social Slub” are mostly free of jarring transitions and sloppy, self-indulgent songwriting.
Lyrically, the Fiery Furnaces still stick to quirky storytelling and alliterative wordplay. Critics may claim that such whimsy doesn’t pack any emotional punch. True, it’s doubtful that the Furnaces are ever going to hit you where you hurt, but that’s not to say that their lyrics don’t serve a therapeutic purpose. The Friedbergers have taken potentially dark themes and run them through the filter of a child’s point of view. Some may argue against the merits of such simplistic escapism, but for those who spend too much time over-thinking their place in the world or who can’t appreciate the finer things in life without weighing them against the bad, the Furnaces offer a welcome respite—a glimpse back at a time in your life when all that really mattered was the coming summer.
// Notes from the Road
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