Remember is a successful illustration of this thorny indie group’s approach to live music: not as nostalgic recreation of familiar favourites, but as a strange and arresting guide towards new territory.
Remember is a live album collected from the Fiery Furnaces’ performances from 2005 through 2007. It includes material from their deep back catalogue, though not recent highlights like “Restorative Beer”. Also, it may just be a perverse trick but you might expect to hear the song that most prominently features the word “remember” -- in one of the band’s most memorable refrains, on an album that bears its name. That’d be “Here Comes the Summer”, and nope, it’s not on the album. But we should probably come to expect that from this group. As their approach to live music suggests, they’re more interested in re-tooling audience expectation than meeting it head-on.
So, the group’s well-known live approach: cycling rapidly and irreverently through their vast back-catalogue, songs flow into each other without regard for what was a single, or what the audience might be hanging out to hear. Pauses come often not between songs but in the middle; lyrics from one song will bleed over into another’s bassline, or will crop up much later in the set for a momentary reprise. A suite of songs that begins and ends with material from “Single Again” is illustrative: a reinterpretation of that song dissolves into computer bleeps and modem noise, before the stripped-back art-blues of “Two Fat Feet” and “Don’t Dance Her Down”, re-done with lyrics from “Single Again” itself. If you’re not familiar with the group’s work, this collage-y approach is likely to be just confusing; if you’re a dedicated fan, it becomes a dizzying, occasionally revelatory, pleasure.
Furthermore, the songs themselves are changed: arrangements become completely re-tooled from keys-based art-pop to aggressive, glitchy disco or punk rock, and occasionally (as on “Tropical Iceland”), even the most recognizable melodic refrains are sacrificed in the service of re-interpretation. Interestingly, tracks that disappointed or dragged on record are sometimes given a more vibrant life here. Live, “Whistle Rhapsody” skips the Beatles-esque, zooming guitar interlude and becomes tauter and more atmospheric, backed by big organ chords, than it was on Bitter Tea. Similarly, “The Wayward Granddaughter”, off 2005’s odd, not entirely successful concept album of stories from the Friedbergers’ grandmother, Rehearsing My Choir, becomes a refreshing, upbeat slice of left-field pop. Matt’s voice, slightly shy and further back from the microphone than his sister, is a welcome change the two or three times it appears over the course of Remember.
This rather Buddhist idea of continual re-creation and destruction may inform the Fiery Furnaces’ approach to their live show, but: (1) you wouldn’t really mistake this for anyone else’s music, and (2) we suspect that the group’s purposefully messing with expectations of performers in order to reveal something new about their work. In this sense, they’ve taken the interpretation imperative that informs classical music, transposed it for art-rock, and taken it to its logical extreme. What’s left is just the occasional hint that, somewhere between all the rattling, nonsensical rock recitative, songs like “Black-Hearted Boy” contain the germ of simple pop hits. Are we supposed to think that? Or is it anathema to the artistic intent? In contrast, the group speeds through past hits like “Crystal Clear” almost apologetically, as if they can’t wait to share with the audience newer, more esoteric, pieces.
Astonishingly rapid-shifting tempi have become a signature of the band over the years. You can imagine the practice it must require to recreate this onstage, but practice the group obviously has, as the transitions on Remember are taut and well-paced. Occasionally, the group’s togetherness gives one of those breath-holding moments, even if you’ve never seen them live yourself. “Chief Inspector Blancheflower”, which comes towards the end of the second disc, shows this nicely -- after a few minutes of abrasive punk guitars, there’s a switch to pop keyboard and Friedberger’s sweetest narration that exemplifies the power of contrast.
A recurring criticism of the group’s studio albums has been their length. In fact, it was their most concise effort, 2005’s EP, that probably garnered the most consistent praise on its release. I suspect that many listeners (myself included) have found it challenging to continue to dig through purposefully obtuse and repetitive material to get to a handful of sparkling art pop moments that tell us, immediately, what we’ve been waiting for. Remember shares this casual-listener-deterring aspect -- there are 52 tracks on the double album, and they run to more than 130 minutes. The difference is that the live setting flattens the inventive studio production that has enlivened particularly the band’s late catalogue. Especially on the first disc, songs become more fractured and more formulaic. The Fiery Furnaces have allowed us a rare glimpse into the guts of their songs, and it consists of Eleanor Friedberger’s emphatic (though elliptical) vocals, interspersed with the touring band’s interjections of dissonant riffage.
On the Fiery Furnaces’ MySpace page, there’s a “live and unreleased” version of one of the group’s most beloved songs, “Single Again” (from EP). The band starts up confidently with the song’s disco swagger, only to dissolve abruptly after a few seconds. There’s a pause, while the audience shouts out obscene, barely heard frat chatter. “Make sure you’re all totally set,” Eleanor Friedberger says in the microphone; it’s unclear whether she’s talking to the band or the audience. And then, off they go, on a new and exciting rendition of the song. That uncertain interaction’s entirely appropriate to listening to a live recording -- it’s how the band approaches its audience, hoping to take them somewhere new, unfamiliar, and challenging. And though the group famously let their music speak for them onstage, just the sound of an audience, of applause and reaction, is essential for this reason.
Though Remember, the group’s characteristically stuffed-full live double album, portrays the Fiery Furnaces’ collage-and-reinterpretation approach to playing their material live, there’s little of this interaction that makes live music (even recorded live music) special. Apart from occasional cheering, or the pause while Friedberger introduces the band, most of the noise from the floor’s been scrubbed out. So take Remember as a legitimate, new way to approach the group’s solid collection of music, but don’t expect an emotional experience. It’s a text, not a souvenir.