It was not that long ago that the possibilities seemed endless for the Fiery Furnaces. Gallowsbird’s Bark, their first record, introduced us to a lively and utterly original new band, and their left-field, keyboard-kook take on folk tales and bedtime stories was a great breath of fresh air. Next came Blueberry Boat that took the sound of their first album and blew it up to a size that might have been too big to hold together, but there was something compelling and surprising in nearly every song.
But since then, the band has fallen down a big ol’ well of self-indulgence. Rehearsing my Choir, which Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger recorded with their grandmother, was an unlistenable, unintelligible attempt at storytelling. Bitter Tea was better, with some good songs, but still overstuffed to the point of rupture. Matthew’s double-disc solo album was tolerable, but relied on the same old tricks: keyboards and nonsensical stories. With the exception of the concise, poppy collection EP, the band has spent its last few releases becoming a parody of itself. Where they once seemed like a band that could do anything, it was becoming apparent that they could really only do one thing over and over, and they weren’t even doing it well anymore.
But now they’re back with Widow City and they sound like they’re trying to right the ship. They’ve beefed up their sound with more guitars, and brought touring drummer Robert D’Amico into the studio to help out, and initially the results sound good. Opener “The Philadelphia Grand Jury” sports some bouncy, Ziggy Stardust-channeling guitar work, and the band uses its trademark lightning-quick time signature changes to their best effect since “Straight Street”. Even Eleanor sounds energized early on here, her vocals infused with a more light-hearted touch than on, say, Bitter Tea. And yes, this first song carries on well past seven minutes, but it still works.
Equally effective is “Clear Signal from Cairo”, which might set the Fiery Furnaces record for most time changes in a song. But they also use all the changes to build the song up, instead of letting it meander, and when they get to the end and Eleanor is singing over and over about the title signal “calling me back to your arms”, and D’Amico is slamming the drums for all their worth, its not only a beautiful, heartfelt moment, but also the most rock ‘n’ roll moment we’ve seen from the band. “Ex-Guru” is another solid number with a deconstructed disco sound that manages to stay danceable and catchy all the way through.
Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger
Unfortunately, those highlights are surrounded by a whole lot of the same, as the guitars early on show themselves to be a ruse, and the bulk of the record is spent with the same off-kilter keys and Eleanor falls back on speak-singing too much instead of using her great voice to drive the songs along. “Automatic Husband” is particularly frustrating, as it wastes a big guitar breakdown on verses that sound like Eleanor is doing a bad impression of Blondie’s “Rapture”. Songs like “Uncle Charlie” and the title track are too cacophonic for their own good, as the just-off timing of the songs sounds forced, like the band is worrying about making music that is too “easy” and instead hide songs that could be decent pop fare behind useless and pretentious conceits.
The album clocks in at nearly an hour, which seems Spartan for the Furnaces, but it still feels far too long. The 16 tracks drag on aimlessly and serve, along with the band’s previous album, to sap their sound of any energy or tension. What the band doesn’t seem to realize is that they are making the same album over and over again. When Blueberry Boat came out, like it or not, it was a change of pace from their first record. The length of the album made for some tension, particularly the something-wicked thump of drums on “Quay Cur”. But now, we all expect the band to release a grand, long album. So when they do, as they’ve done with every full length since their first, the tension is lost, and the albums sound flabby. The band once sounded like they were interested in innovation and invention in their music, but now they just sound stubborn, unwilling to break out of their formula in any ways that, like the guitars on Widow City, aren’t completely cosmetic.
This album could have been a great opportunity for the Fiery Furnaces. It could have been their return to form. They could have let the keyboards stay in the background, and crafted more guitar-driven pop, and let their touring drummer go wild. The best moments on this record do all those things. But those moments are so few and so far between that Widow City ends up sounding like a band that approached a new sound, poked at it for a minute, then stepped away and slid back into their comfort zone.
Since the band plays it so safe on this record, it makes the stories they are telling sound emotionless. Most of these narrators don’t sound broken, because the band doesn’t sound broken. Because sometimes, if you want to get better you have to risk getting hurt and, in the end, the Fiery Furnaces are taking no risks with their music. It seemed impossible just a couple of years ago, but it is true: Fiery Furnaces has become predictable.
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