The Fiery Furnaces

TrackAlbum / Single
Don't Dance Her DownGallowsbird's Bark
Chris MichaelsBlueberry Boat
Single AgainEP
Here Comes The SummerEP
Tropical Ice-Land (single version)EP
Benton Harbor BluesBitter Tea
The Philadelphia Grand JuryWidow City
Duplexes Of The DeadWidow City
Automatic HusbandWidow City
Down At The So And So On SomewhereThird Man Records TMR-684

The Fiery Furnaces photo 3

Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger

 

 

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FF playlist

 

 

Contributor: Nick Portnell

There has always been a fascination with siblings in bands. From the Everlys, through the Wilsons, and up to the Gallaghers, the two main points of focus are usually the perfect family harmonies or the constant bickering. At the turn of the century, the world of music was busy trying to figure out whether the White Stripes were the latest brother and sister duo to have a stab at making it big, or if they were actually a married couple (neither was true we later learned). At the same time a genuine brother and sister band emerged from Brooklyn that left the music press and music fans equally as confused, but this time it had nothing to do with their biographies.

The Fiery Furnaces were formed in 2000 by Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, who had grown up near Chicago before making the move to New York. The duo created music so ambitious and complex that the critics never quite knew what to make of them. Their songs would often resemble the sound of somebody dialling through various radio stations without ever alighting on one in particular. There was very little to keep the listener grounded. The idea of songs with a verse, chorus, verse structure never seemed to interest them, which may well be one of the reasons why they remain one of the best bands that many people have never heard.

Their music was somehow rooted in the blues but could veer erratically through garage, prog and vaudeville in the space of one song. The lyrics were dense, complex and consistently baffling. At times it sounds as though Eleanor’s vocals are being dragged along by the sheer momentum of the music, like somebody who got their coat caught in the doors as they got off the bus. Yet despite the complex nature of their music, these were no virtuoso players. The sound is raw and often amateurish, yet this just adds another layer of charm to the proceedings.

 

Their debut album Gallowsbird’s Bark was released on Rough Trade in 2003 and I’m picking the folk song inspired Don’t Dance Her Down. Gallowsbird’s Bark is a gloriously ramshackle snapshot of a band finding their feet. Comparisons were instantly made to the White Stripes, but Jack and Meg never made you made feel as dizzy as this. There is certainly a naivety to the album but it was and remains light years ahead of what anybody else has done with the blues template in the 21st century.

Just ten months after their debut, the second album appeared; thirteen tracks spread over 76 minutes of musical vertigo that would either fill the listener with joy or induce a panic attack. This was not the sound of a band honing their sound to appeal to a wider audience. Songs such as Chris Michaels were mini rock operas for those of us who previously regarded all rock operas to be shit. Blueberry Boat completely polarized the music press, Pitchfork awarded it a very creditable 9.6 while the NME described it as ‘the most aggravating album of all time’ and gave it a score of 1 out of 10. To me, it is one of the best albums of this century so far. The only album that I could possibly compare it to is the mighty Bee Thousand by Guided By Voices, yet musically the two bands have very little in common other than a cauldron of ideas and a fondness for using song fragments that leave you wanting more. I have only included one song from Blueberry Boat as the songs can often sound even more peculiar when listened to outside of the confines of the record.

The band’s prolific output continued unabated into 2005, with first the baffling titled EP (which is actually ten songs and 41 minutes long). The first two tracks, Single Again and Here Comes The Summer, illustrate the diversity of the FF and both are included in this short playlist.

Then came Rehearsing My Choir, an hour long concept album featuring the siblings’ grandmother narrating stories from her life. It had become clear by this point that the band were certainly not looking for stardom.

Back on a more even keel, the 2006 album, Bitter Tea (released on Fat Possum in the States and Rough Trade again over here), was reviewed favourably by the critics. It’s really hard to pick just one track from this excellent all-round album but I’m going for the one released as a single, Benton Harbor Blues.

Their sixth album, Widow City arrived in 2007 and featured an opening trio of songs so brilliant that whenever BBC Radio 6 DJ Marc Riley plays one, he has to play all three. The Philadelphia Grand Jury, Duplexes Of The Dead and Automatic Husband just seem to flow into one another perfectly. I have included all three in my ten as I can’t really imagine listening to just one without the others. The album revealed a slightly heavier sound yet still retained the cryptic lyricism that we had come to expect from the group. It also contained the excellent Ex-Guru; couldn’t make room for it in my ten but here’s the video.

Surprisingly for a band so prolific, 2008 didn’t bring any new material and we had to wait until 2009 for the next album. I’m Going Away could be described as their most accessible album yet for many fans, the songs just didn’t have the thrill factor that we had grown so used to. It is not a bad album by any means and it still sparkles more than most other records released at the time. A final album, Take Me Round Again, was initially released as a download later the same year and featured reworked versions of their own songs.

What is remarkable is that they not only managed to release 8 studio albums in just over 5 years, but that they were constantly touring as well. Their live shows became even more complex than the records with many already lengthy songs being sequenced into each other to form epic medleys. The live album Remember clocks in at over an hour and half and features 51 tracks, yet they are listed as six suites on the sleeve. The album comes with a warning on the back cover: “Please do not attempt to listen to all at once”.

 

In 2011, after an incredible run of studio albums, the band announced a hiatus. Eleanor went on to enjoy a well-received solo career, while Matthew continued to make music from the farthest reaches of the left field.

For me, The Fiery Furnaces are the most exciting band that the 21st century has given us so far. I know they are a difficult listen, but I still find it strange when people tell me that they don’t like them. They had a certain spirit of the 1960s about them without ever sounding retro. While some artists almost appear to relish making music as weird as they possibly can, this band seem to ooze songs that just happened to end up sounded strange. Eleanor’s voice is captivating, and there are enough little bits and pieces in their vast catalogue of songs to convince anyone that they could have written the perfect pop song if they had really wanted to; but I guess that they would have found that boring.

In 2020, during the depths of the lockdown, the Fiery Furnaces reappeared with a brand new song, Down At The So And So On Somewhere, and I couldn’t have been happier. The song can almost be described as mellow, and sounds simply glorious on the radio. Who knows, maybe the world will now be better prepared to accept their beautiful strangeness.

 

The Fiery Furnaces photo 2

Andy Knowles, Matthew, Eleanor, Toshi Yano (Coney Island 2004)

 

 

 

The Fiery Furnaces bandcamp

Eleanor Friedberger official website

Matthew Friedberger solo recordings

The Fiery Furnaces biography (Apple Music)

Nick Portnell is a music fanatic who spent 15 years working in record shops. He is forever looking for lost classics and the next great album. He had a go at making his own music for a while but is far happier listening to other people’s voices. Nick is now a husband, father and charity worker. You can find him on twitter @NPortnell

TopperPost #904

2 Comments

  1. Neil Saddington
    Sep 19, 2020

    Great piece Nick which has reminded me about the brilliance of the Fiery Furnaces a band I have been aware of since seeing the Tropical Iceland video on MTV many, many years ago. Through Marc Riley and the excellent Widow City lp I reacquainted myself with the band in 2007. But I must admit that I haven’t kept up with their music since nor have I fully submerged myself in their complete back catalogue.

    Your article has inspired me to once again more fully explore the music of the Fiery Furnaces as they definitely are worthy of more of my listening time. Not always an easy listen as you rightly point out and yes they can suddenly veer away from perfect catchy pop into something much more heavy and prog like. But that is part of their appeal. Thanks for this excellent bit of writing and for the playlist. I look forward to exploring more of The Fiery Furnaces music

  2. Marc Fagel
    Sep 20, 2020

    Nice! One of those names I’ve heard over the years but for some reason never got around to checking out their music. The top 10 here is pretty fantastic, definitely makes me want to go track down the albums.

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