The Fiery Furnaces

by Stuart Henderson

6 January 2008

I don’t listen to the Fiery Furnaces much, but there's a reason I see them every time they come to town.

I don’t listen to the Fiery Furnaces much. I do have most of their records, though—from Gallowsbird’s Bark to this year’s Widow City—and I’ll probably buy their next release, and the one after that. But, like I said, I don’t listen to them all that much.

I do see them every time they come to town.

The Fiery Furnaces

12 Dec 2007: Lee’s Palace — Toronto, Ontario

I will line up in the snow, and I will stand there, through the deeply subpar opening act (Brooklyn high-school band the MGMT), drinking beer and getting psyched. When the Furnaces take the stage, I’ll be (seriously) giddy with excitement, with expectation. And then, after a show, I will seriously consider going Deadhead on them, getting a van and following them down to Buffalo, to Detroit, to Montrea (I could sell grilled cheeses in the parking lot).

The Fiery Furnaces put on one of the most rewarding, engaging, and singular rock shows you are likely to see. Amid the clutter of indie bands who (like the hapless MGMT, snoring their way through their opening set) can’t seem to figure out how to do anything “new”, bold, or otherwise interesting, the Furnaces stand apart. Their music—strikingly, and deliberately, hard to classify—is played with such exuberance, such playfulness and sincerity, it’s difficult not to be pulled into the vortex. In an era still (still!) dominated by irony and distance, a time when I can actually count on my fingers the number of bands I’ve seen this year who seemed genuinely overjoyed to be playing music for me (hi, Hold Steady), the Furnaces remind us that there is still room for musicians who make, not just play music.

I am in the semi-silent minority on this, of course. The room last night was less than two-thirds full (and that’s after the venue had been switched from the larger Phoenix Concert Hall to the more intimate Lee’s Palace). Part of this, surely, stems from the fact that what the Furnaces do up there is pretty unhinged. Performing as a foursome, siblings Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger (vocals and organs, respectively) lead their rhythm section (Bob D’Amico on drums, Jason Loewenstein on bass) through a series of callisthenic changes, keeping everyone on their toes, never certain where the next beat will drop. It’s invigorating stuff, but it’s also about as alienating as can be for those convinced that predictable melodies and chord progressions are what pop music is all about. Here, meter and tempo changes hit like whiplash, the mood swings abruptly or heavy downtown jazz to fingertip piano and hook-and-groove, while the lyrics spin incessantly out of Eleanor’s mouth, forceful and over-enunciated. True story: last time I saw them, my friend Jill had to go stand at the back because the music was making her dizzy.

Normally that might be a bad thing, but don’t we need some dizziness from time to time? I know I do. There’s nothing more fulfilling in the world of concert-going than to walk out of a show knowing you’ve just seen something surprising, something unusual, something the local indie club scene hasn’t got on tap. The Fiery Furnaces offer themselves to us—weirdness, unpredictability, boisterousness, and all—and we’d be fools not to take it.

Now, I’m going to go and put on a record by someone else.

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