How often do you get to hear new music that makes you swivel your head 90 degrees in genuine surprise? Not too often, I’d bet. Well, Fiery Furnaces are chock-full in the surprise department. Yet, surprisingly, there’s no other band so well equipped to create timeless pop classics that, at least in a much better world, would sell in the billions upon billions. Fiery Furnaces equip themselves with a perfect equation for balancing what the audience thinks it wants and what F.F. feel it ought to get.
Fiery Furnaces’ new disc on Fat Possum, Bitter Tea, is an exhilarating hodgepodge of ADD-riddled, music-hall, teary-ballad, tuff-rock, prog-avant, textural madness and formal feistiness frequently festooned with backward-tape vocals and the best/worst of ’80s keyboard technology. The more addled songs seem to change their minds about life in midstream, or simply deny all that has come before. It is the most different-sounding ostensibly rock-oriented music currently available.
Fiery Furnaces aren’t really a band at all — well, not a proper band, according to Matthew Friedberger, who along with his quirkily charismatic sister, vocalist/drummer Eleanor, constitutes the full lineup. (Guest players augment the studio and live actions.) The pair grew up quite happily in Chicago, and decided to make music together after both had relocated to New York City. This was a few years back, and, since borrowing money from Matt’s girlfriend to make their first album, they’ve gone on in ultraprolific style to do five more, plus a jokey EP along the way. In addition, Matt’s got two solo albums coming out in August. Their only “plan” has been to do what they felt like doing.
“It’s just fun,” says Matt. “You know, we’re not a big sort of band. If you ?just sell a few records, so the record company doesn’t say, ‘You can’t make one until you’ve toured around forever and wrung the last nickel out of this album,’ then they’re just happy to have another record. And it’s fun to work if you get to tell yourself what to do.”
Bitter Tea, perhaps because it came after the Furnaces’ slightly difficult previous album Rehearsing My Choir, which featured vocals by the Friedbergers’ grandmother, manages to be really kicky in the catchy-pop sense, and deeply touching and intellectually itchy-scratchy simultaneously.
“It’s popular music,” says Matt, “it’s just that we try to have just enough surprises that it seems arbitrary and spontaneous and fun — you know, lively as opposed to following the song up to its conclusion, making it most effective for slamming down the street or [laughs] whatever people are doing. People drive down the street listening to our records, too, hopefully.”
Listening to Bitter Tea, I kept saying to myself, That is beautiful. I’m hearing just extremely unusual combinations of not only styles but textures and harmonies, not to mention all of that stuff being utterly subverted by intentionally cheesy, cheapo synths right out of a really bogus Cure B-side. The real miracle is how Matt transcends mere tributizing while making all these often obvious references to sappy classic rock.
“Our last record was a lot of prose, a lot of talking,” says Matt, “and Bitter Tea was gonna be the ‘lyrical’ record, you know, with some repeated choruses, and so I wanted to have these big, soppy, sentimental tunes and overly sentimental lyrics, and then record in such a way that you can enjoy it at one remove.”
Thus the lovely “Waiting to Know You” works as ?a sweetly soppy sentimental song, and ?it also sounds like someone trying to ?sing one.
“It’s like people do when they listen to songs,” says Matt. “They relate them to their own situation. You know it’s about somebody else, and you kinda smirk about it, that kind of smirk of recognition that it applies to you, even though it’s a song that maybe you think you’re smarter than, you know, but really you’re not.”
For Bitter Tea’s non-ironic irony (in vogue as of July 2006), Matt needed crappy old digital synths that would sound kind of pathetic, to give it all pathos and perhaps flip the bird a bit to the ’80s — his musical roots.
“The keyboards and drum sounds on this record are, like, Juno keyboards and Eventide and Lexicon and all these things that sound very dated, and so hopefully that have a kind of sad, broken-toy effect,” he says. “And it all sounds like my childhood.” He’s 33 years old. “It sounds a lot like ’80s revivalism for kids who are younger and don’t really remember it, but it’s got that one-step-removed fashionable thing to it.
“But .?.?. I always hated those bands,” he laughs, “and so did my sister. We didn’t even like the Smiths. I mean, Scritti Politti and the Cure, they don’t sound anything like each other, but I thought of them as the same as a kid.”
All this weighty thought is but a small part of Fiery Furnaces’ intricate pop mystique and charm, and that’s owing to the elocutionary soul of Eleanor Friedberger’s singing. This way-charismatic interpreter of Matt’s songs has to handle the jittery jumble of too many syllables in such complex tunery as the fractured electro-bubblegum prog show tune “I’m in No Mood,” but grows stronger and sweeter and deeper toward album’s end. “She’s gotta walk on a tightrope,” Matt says, “and if she looks to one side or looks to the other side, or looks back, then she’s lost forever.”
Eleanor, with her intelligent style and formidable vocal chops, is the one who’ll bring Fiery Furnaces their biggest and splashiest notoriety, which they unreservedly deserve in that much better faraway world but which neither she nor Matt give a toss about in the parched, dreary one we inhabit. No, they want to do this because they like doing it; they’ll keep taking chances, and if people can relate, then cool, whatever.
Says Matt, “If you like a band, it’s not just you like what they make, but you like what they like. People like their clothes, or like everything they seem to stand for.” He laughs. “I don’t think that happens with us .?.?.”