Since their 2003 debut Gallowsbird’s Bark, The Fiery Furnaces have left listeners swooning in a state of confused delight as they repeatedly trounce genre boundaries and make each record radically different from the last. Consisting of siblings Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger and a rotating cast of support musicians, the Furnaces have veered from lo-fi, skeletal electronica and autobiographical stories narrated by their grandmother to the overtly 1970s-influenced rock of their latest album, Widow City.
The Friedbergers and their accomplices manage to weave a common thread throughout this disparate body of work, unifying their material with an off-kilter sensibility that would likely seem contrived in anyone else’s hands. Despite a love of cryptic lyrics, an obvious experimental streak and a joy in creating elaborate framing devices, the Furnaces’ music never seems to veer too far into the realm of the self-conscious or ironic.
Yet, Matthew Friedberger flatly refutes the notion that the band’s records are concept albums.
“No, I don’t call them that,” he says, bristling as if the word is distasteful to him. “The music either has a story, like a rock opera, or it’s just an album. Or, if you have a technical thread, like all the songs are in the same key or written around a row of nine notes or something, that’s a concept. I think Come Fly with Me, Sinatra’s record, with songs all about traveling, is the original concept record.”
Friedberger also adamantly insists that the Fiery Furnaces are by no means an art-rock band. “We’re just making rock music,” he says.
However obtuse or evasive this claim may seem in light of the group’s constant musical shape-shifting, the current live incarnation of the band is anything but the stereotype of artsy. With a definite swagger and heaviness—a marked departure from previous stage shows—the Furnaces have refashioned themselves (for now) as a muscular rock band that seethes with assurance and power. Between Matthew’s thick organ lines, Sebadoh bassist Jason Lowenstein’s fuzzed-out four-string attack and drummer Bob D’Amico’s unbridled emphasis on technicality, the Furnaces clearly aren’t messing around.
Meanwhile, Eleanor Friedberger stands at the helm, uttering rapid-fire sing-speak imagery into the gathering storm. Like a modern-day incarnation of Patti Smith, Eleanor strides the line between sweet vulnerability and hard-edged menace, her delivery charged with a playful, if vaguely chilling, air of sexuality. You can’t really tell which she intends, but the ambiguity makes the music crackle.
Just take one of her lines: “two extra-blond, short-sleeve, button-down, white-shirt, blue-tie, mystery Mormons took me by the arm into a back room and wanted to balance my checkbook and organize my receipts, itemize my expenses.” It buzzes with the suggestion of depravity, if not outright violence.
But Matthew, who actually writes a great deal of the lyrics himself, demurs.
“That’s supposed to be fun,” he says of the lyrics. “I mean, it’s Mormons, so you don’t know. When they offer to organize her receipts, maybe they are just asking to organize her receipts.
“Or maybe …” he continues, trailing off coyly.
Perhaps Friedberger reveals more when he bursts into laughter at the suggestion that he’s getting in touch with feminine aspects of himself when he writes for his sister.
“Well, when you write about some guy,” he counters, “or when you write a love song, you’re touching on masculine elements of yourself. In other words, you’re writing from the same stereotypes that you get anything from: greeting-card language, a Paul McCartney song, or what you heard someone say on a TV show that you like. It’s not actually coming from your own experience. Because your own experience is made up of those things.”
Maybe so, but the band amounts to way more than cynical pop-culture regurgitation. And, for all the reference points they draw on, the Friedbergers still manage to come off totally fresh, especially in the concert setting, where any potential accusations of pretense become moot. Catch them later this week, when their current Southeast tour brings them to Asheville. Like-minded experimental local group Ear Pwr opens.
[Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a freelance music writer based in Rochester, N.Y.]
who: The Fiery Furnaces with experimentally like-minded local group Ear Pwr
what: Engaging, exciting rock
where: Grey Eagle
when: Friday, Feb. 8. 9 p.m. ($15. www.thegreyeagle.com or 232-5800)