Antic Digression Disorder

The dizzying wormholes of the Fiery Furnaces
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  January 16, 2008
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REVERSE THREADS: Fiery Furnaces. credit
Amy Giunta

The Fiery Furnaces don’t make things easy on themselves. They traffic in an ADD-addled, tension-and-release-based indie-pop familiar to fans of Animal Collective and Deerhoof, but forgo the populist tactics of AC’s trippy soundscapes and Deerhoof’s cutesy female vocalist. They usually, however, make better albums.

The duo further depart from their peers — and alienate impatient listeners — by employing that fidgety style in the service of densely plotted lyrics and music that, at first glance, seem hopelessly fragmented. Rather than an hour of songs, most Fiery Furnaces releases are headlong dives into a wormhole.

The albums — there are five and an EP, all released within four years — are mostly complex meta-narratives. Blueberry Boat (2004, Rough Trade) concerns, for a time, a young girl who loses her locket and her dog, runs into pirates, and is at one point kidnapped. The notorious 2005 album Rehearsing My Choir (Rough Trade) is the stream-of-consciousness oral biography of the duo’s recently deceased grandmother, Olga Sarantos, who narrated her own history. Bitter Tea (2006, Fat Possum) is a less verbose chronicle of loneliness, but nevertheless manages to squeeze in an abduction subplot.

Fiery Furnaces with Phantom Buffalo | 9:30 pm January 19 | at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St, Portland | $12 | 207.828.5600
Eleanor Friedberger’s poised vocal delivery, brisk but plainspoken, gives these yarns much of their wit and effervescence. A typical lyric finds her barreling through audacious plot twists while relaying a great deal of extraneous and fantastical information, resulting in lines like “or so said the birth chart I sent away to New Mexico for/It was made by a commission of Navajo basketball coaches and blonde ladies.”

The narratives’ meta-touch comes from her brother Matthew’s dizzying compositions. Rather than navigating the listener through these precocious, detail-oriented stories, his music exacerbates, even obfuscates, them. It’s intentionally difficult and always fascinating attempting to make sense of the communication between Eleanor’s delivery and Matthew’s abrupt tonal shifts.

The shifts come at obvious moments — pregnant points of Eleanor’s narration — but you can’t guess where they’ll go. Frequently used instruments include a rickety piano out of a 1920s silent comedy, a psychedelic-breakdown-friendly electric guitar (Matthew is an avowed fan of the Who’s rock-opera moments), a synthesizer, and looping technology that allows him to play entire movements and vocal hooks backwards. The tools guide interludes ranging from 10-second flights of fancy to minutes-long miasmas of murky electronics that disappear at a moment’s notice.

It’s difficult to quantify the merits of these intervals, except to say that when they fail they feel like unnecessary digressions and when they succeed they create a symbiotic relationship between story and atmosphere. Fortunately, the band usually nail the latter category.

At their best, Matthew and Eleanor create stories that couldn’t exist without each another’s input. The peak of their singular art form is, for my money, Bitter Tea. Darker and more tangled than the duo’s other releases, it’s also a more appealing journey.

The album embraces the experimentation of the duo’s approach to making music, relaxing narrative conceits (this is the one that prominently sports vocals and instruments in reverse) and taking on a more diverse sonic palette. It’s also the album where Eleanor became a more emotive vocalist, a development that has helped the band become more, well, likable.

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