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Stop making sense

The precision mishmashes of the Fiery Furnaces
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  June 8, 2009

DIFFERENCE ENGINE: "Our records, they have a particular sort of eclecticism that we feel obligated to perpetrate," says Matthew Friedberger.

 Variations on a theme: How the Furnaces tap '70s television. By Daniel Brockman
"I don't know if that makes any sense."

Matthew Friedberger says this a lot. As one half of the semi-inscrutable bizarro-pop duo the Fiery Furnaces (with his sister Eleanor), he often finds himself having to explain the unexplainable when it comes to their music. Over nine years and eight albums (not counting the two solo efforts he put out during a brief downtime for the band in 2006), Matthew and Eleanor have carved out a knotty songbook that is dizzyingly complex. Yet there's enough honest-to-goodness soulful tuneage to reward close inspection.

Although their dense jams throw down the gauntlet at the terrified feet of casual listeners, Matthew, on the phone from his home in Brooklyn, doesn't quite see Fiery Furnaces as a sealed-off æsthetic cosmos. "Look, we just think that we, as a band, are very . . . interested. In things, in the world. We don't think of ourselves as closed off — actually, we think of ourselves as pretty open-ended in the way we do things. But a lot of our music is not the kind of thing that you can easily utilize or 'get' in the same way that you might utilize or 'get' another type of rock record. The way that you're supposed to enjoy it is a little different than from some other band, but we still think that our music is involved in the world. Our records, they have a particular sort of — I hate to use this word — but a sort of eclecticism that we feel obligated to perpetrate."

Does that make any sense? It does if you've heard Fiery Furnaces' music, a jarring barrage that's at once a spit in the eye of musical tradition and a heartfelt love letter to the same. The duo, who play the Middle East downstairs this Friday, came to international renown with 2004's Blueberry Boat (Rough Trade), a song cycle — on topics ranging from pirates on the open seas to the White Sox, Oxycontin, and Damascus Internet cafés — that shape-shifts just as you begin to process what it is you're listening to. The dizzying swirl of plangent piano choruses, fuzzed-out guitar leads, swooning and crooning vocalizations (Eleanor), crashing percussion, James Brownian funk workouts, and kaleidoscopic keyboard shards is enough to detonate the head — and the response has been love-it or hate-it. Live, the band are thornier still, taking their recordings, tearing them up, and reassembling them into a patchwork medley that sounds like a K-Tel ad.

"Look [Matthew also starts with "Look" a lot], with what's going on in the world, everyone has massive amounts of information, and it's very hard to synthesize it. So there are a lot of different styles for a rock band, and the goal of synthesizing it is to make it coherent in a way that people are used to hearing in rock music of the past. So in a sense, it's about a failure of intelligence — I mean 'intelligence' like the intelligence community, where they intercept everything the world says and eavesdrop on every phone conversation, and putting it all together is very difficult to do. So we don't try to synthesize our music into a single object — but maybe this means that the product of this synthesis is harder to comprehend. Am I making any sense?"

Totally. I think. Although one listen to their newest, I'm Going Away (Thrill Jockey), and you can see the Friedbergers trying to make their musical reconnaissance resonate with the outside world. Maybe it's because this time the siblings got their musical inspiration from television themesongs of the '70s (see "Variations on a Theme"), or maybe it's just a desire to atone for the byzantine obstinacy of last year's Remember (Thrill Jockey), their first live album, a two-disc set so chopped and screwed that the liner notes actually warn, "Please do not attempt to listen to all at once." "I'm Going Away" is a jaunty piano pop ditty, and one of the more inviting and unintimidating Fiery Furnaces album openers; it isn't until the next track, "Drive to Dallas," that things get more convoluted, its mix of melancholic chord pop and bracing scuzz rock creating an epic sweep.

In the same way that every family eventually understands its own dysfunction, Matt can see how his band's siblinghood makes them stand out in a sea of bands made up of casual acquaintances. "We think the family thing affects our atmosphere, spirit, vibe — because we're siblings and we see each other in that light, we don't have the same kind of exciting, cool esprit de cœur that a group of friends might have. You don't try to remake yourself with your sibling — to remake yourself, you don't include your family. We're siblings who, at a certain point, decided to be friends. So we don't have that same kind of purpose that other bands have — you know, follow us and get a mohawk and leave your family behind. I don't think many people are fans of our band because of lifestyle associations.

"Does that make any sense?"

FIERY FURNACES + HALLELUJAH THE HILLS + BODEGA GIRLS | Middle East downstairs, 480 Mass Ave, Cambridge | June 12 at 9 pm | $12 | 617.864.EAST

Related: Fiery Furnaces, The Fiery Furnaces, Sweet Dichotomy, More more >
  Topics: Music Features , The Fiery Furnaces, James Brownian, Matthew Friedberger,  More more >
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