It’s a high-falutin’ seaside carnival from another time, where maidens don pinstripe stockings and pantaloons, click buckled shoes as they jitterbug with spry sailor gentleman and hardy landlubbers. It’s cannonballing down a hill like a child and staining your knees with grass and mud before landing, flush-faced and giggling, in a crunchy bed of colorful autumn leaves. It’s rolling rock clamoring back toward vaudeville, or Louisville, or anyplace other than the Brooklyn base the band call home. It’s rocking roll, changing the terms of punk as well as the players, making shyness forceful, doing and undoing and doing again.
In other words, it’s urgent. Gallowbird’s Bark is the debut from the brother-sister duo known as the Fiery Furnaces, but they don’t wait to let you know what they’re about. From the first moments of “South Is Only a Home”, the opening track, you’re plunged headlong into their pageantry by way of a descending chromatic scale on a clangy piano, keyed up by itchy guitar fuzz and an insistent, hammering drum. The production makes the sound hyper-real and pointed but at the same time, raw and undoctored. Eleanor Friedberger begins to sing and her voice is an imperfect charm: muffled and melodious, sunken and shy, like a chanteuse with something stuck in her throat. What’s she singing about? God only knows the mission of this narrative. She’s carrying on about women rejoicing, second chances, rivers, and rummage sales, but it’s all heading to the refrain, an invocation of the title over and over, spiraling the song to a close. It sounds like running towards something, or running away. I can’t decide which, but by the end I’m exhausted.
And ironically, the album’s next track is “I’m Gonna Run”, another bevy of non-sequiturs bleated out this time of a sashaying buzz of a melody. The music collages soulful, blues-inspired guitar rock with angular artpunk breakdowns, but the entire thing is rendered genre-less by Eleanor’s peculiar singing style, which manages to sound weighed down even at its fastest. Again, her voice has a choked up quality that’s hard to pinpoint—a new English speaker from a Nordic tongue? Sung using the tricks of ventriloquism? I could be convinced that her lips didn’t move through this entire recording, save for the sharp hiss of her articulation, sticking every word like a tack. This voice will either send you into rapturous pangs of desire or drive you absolutely mad. Maybe both.
There are many things to love about the Fiery Furnaces, and they blend them all together on nearly every song. Every song is a piano recital, a punk rock concert, a tone poem, an art project, a dizzying expanse of white noise, a beautiful mess. But over Gallowbird’s Bark, you begin to wonder the appeal of it all. Especially once the frenzy calms down a bit on “Up in the North”, the first bona fide “slow” song. It becomes painfully clear that while they’re musically transgressive and artistically fierce, they all but neglect those sticky elements that make a song stay with you. They race by in flurries of cataclysmic merrymaking, they roll on with a trot and a stomp; but rarely is it a party you’re invited to, a march you can join. This is not to say that they’re unnecessarily obscure. But it is to say that songs begin to feel not quite fully realized, more like inside jokes than executed displays. “Inca Rag/Name Game”, which begins as a simple piano tune where both Matt and Eleanor sing, displays this perfectly. You can imagine the two of them belting it out together, side-by-side at a family reunion. Halfway through, guitar, bass and drums enter, fleshing out the song but sounding more like a few cousins wrestled up some instruments, and no one was quite sure where the song was going.
This directionless-ness sometimes works to the band’s advantage with beautiful effect—“South Is Only a Home” and “I’m Gonna Run” are a case in point, as is the groove-heavy “Asthma Attack”. But during other songs, it’s just confusing, distracting, repetitive, or all of the above. And ultimately, all the sonic tricks and stylistic flourishes do little to abate this.
The Fiery Furnaces remain a band with the sound and vision to powerfully tear the roof off, raise hell, get the party started, whatever—and they’re to be lauded for abandoning staid song structures for something more daring and original. But at the end of the day, sheer energy makes you tired. Sometime, the carnival has to end; the charge down the hill gets boring; and you just want to go home.