Music

The Fiery Furnaces: Widow City

Since the band plays it so safe on this record, it makes the stories they are telling sound emotionless. Fiery Furnaces has become predictable.


The Fiery Furnaces

Widow City

Label: Thrill Jockey
US Release Date: 2007-10-09
UK Release Date: 2007-10-08
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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.

4

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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