From 2003 until 2011, over the span of six studio albums, an EP, a double-disc live extravaganza, and hundreds of catalog-recombinant shows, the Oak Park, Illinois-reared siblings Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger wrought a polarizing, idiosyncratic iconography; by and large, audiences were either reveling in the cavalcade of inside jokes, or they were resolutely weren’t.
While garage rock and blues were the Fiery Furnaces’ core idioms, they weren’t afraid, over time, to wrangle pop, prog, musical theater, folk, gospel, tinny-ass carnival spew, and hard rock into a mod-indie equivalent of Choose Your Own Adventure paperbacks, if said paperbacks were cheekily ghostwritten by Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace. Double-stitched with baffling turns of phrase and dizzyingly archaic verbiage, each song — sung by Eleanor usually; performed by Matthew mostly — rendered a separate world teetering precariously between exaggerated caricature and waking reality. The lyricism was millennium-era-Ghostface gratuitous, sold by Eleanor with a go-for-broke panache so courageous that, on albums like Widow City and Blueberry Boat, it felt almost globe-conquering — flip, far-ranging, esoteric, mean-spirited, and sympathetic. What couldn’t the Fiery Furnaces do? Where couldn’t they lead anyone who cared to tag along as banks of keyboards, organs, and synthesizers squelched merrily from one absurdist, maddeningly specific scenario to the next? Their potential, at times, felt downright limitless — until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t.
Consider this: The Fiery Furnaces issued six studio albums over seven years, a productivity rate familiar to Woody Allen and rock bands in their stride in the 1960s and 1970s. Then they toured behind these records, each of which was no-fucks-given weird and batshit bonkers its own special way. During all of this, Matthew cut and released 2006’s Winter Woman/Holy Ghost Language School, a double album that was essentially the Fiery Furnaces sans his sister — all the while dropping hints that, someday, his sister would make amazing solo music. Then, from its title on down to the song names, 2009’s I’m Going Away was very plainly the writing on the wall. By the time the band’s spigot stopped flowing, two conflicting emotions were at play: a sense of unwelcome deprivation and a feeling that maybe, yeah, everyone (band and audience) needed to enjoy a respite from the breakneck Furnaces roller coaster.
In the years since, Eleanor made good on the solo career Matthew anticipated; while 2011’s Last Summer and 2013’s Personal Record can’t approach the no-holds-barred pluck of the Furnaces at their prime, Stare At The Sun almost legitimizes the hiatus, and may just be the most narcotic tune anyone associated with this band has ever produced. Matthew, meanwhile, decamped for Europe, cut a series of limited-edition or otherwise obscure LPs, and drifted away from the cultural conversation, resurfacing to form (sorta) last year. Longtime Furnaces sidemen Jason Loewenstein (of Sebadoh) and Bob D’Amico continue to tour (and slay) as Circle Of Buzzards. Life goes on; it’s just not as audaciously strange as it was when the Furnaces were inescapable. To paraphrase so many The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries, whether or not Matthew and Eleanor opt to reactivate the Furnaces “remains to be seen.” Two weeks ago, Eleanor released her third solo LP, New View, which seems like as good a reason as any to look back at the catalog of the band that introduced us to the Friedberger siblings and their considerable talents. So let’s do it.
8. Bitter Tea (2006)
My notes on Bitter Tea include the following: “their difficult album, their David Lynch movie.” Now as at the time of release, Tea confounds so thoroughly that drawing a thematic bead beyond, say, “an exceptional, lovesick EP buried within an impenetrable, drug-damaged LP” is next to impossible. It’s like sitting down to a delicious bowl of Cream Of Wheat festooned with dead weevils; it’s as though Matthew and Eleanor wrote a handful of direct, soul-bearing pop songs and then, feeling a bit naked and abashed, took great pains to muddle and obfuscate them. (Sometimes — sometimes — I wonder if I’d feel a mite differently about this if they’d waited a full two calendar years between studio albums, whether I was suffering some sort of Furnaces fatigue.)
From the oil-slick fricassee of “Black-Hearted Boy” to the snapped-synapse zap of “Nevers” to the title track’s beat-switching mania to how “The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry” courts Satanic noise, Tea scans as a gross overextension, everything sabotaged and backmasked as fuck, with needless reprises piled on top. Yet — yet — “Waiting To Know You” is glowing, torch-song pop despite detritus cluttering the bottom of the mix; breakneck Gamblers Anonymous travelogue “Borneo” somehow becomes more exhilarating with each listen; “Teach Me Sweetheart” is a career-topping marvel of sensual simmer and psychosexual tension; “Police Sweater Blood Vow” is primo fake electric Dylan.
In a sense, Tea is almost the Furnaces’ Wowee Zowee — the album where warts and dimples get equal time. But the record’s shortcoming — i.e., the band’s indecisiveness, neither going full-on pop or willfully scuttling and defacing every beautiful note — is ultimately what lands it in the least enviable slot in a “Worst To Best” feature.
7. Remember (2008)
The Fiery Furnaces’ approach to live performance was to transform a generous catalog into a strenuous, Naked Lunch-esque exercise, squishing a handful of bars and verses from several songs together, often sacrificing entrenched melodies and cadences and erecting bizarre new creations in the process. Depending on the listener’s temperament — or, possibly, inebriation level — this willful upsetting of standard live behavior was exhilarating, confusing, or off-putting. On the one hand, it assumed (perhaps dangerously) a serious commitment and degree of patience on the audience’s part; on the other hand, it likely kept the band invested in national and international tours that stretched for weeks. The digipack for Remember, compiled from 2005, 2006, and 2007 shows, boasts an eye-roll worthy admonition: “Please do not attempt to listen to all at once.” And sure, fair enough — two discs and 132 minutes of recontextualized Furnaces will try the patience of the staunchest fan. Sometimes the set can seem more like a provocation for a specialized game of Name That Tune than a way to immortalize a particular vision of this band. At other moments, Remember actually surpasses the chestnuts it’s lovingly roasting: injecting “My Dog Was Lost But Now He’s Found” with a sweaty, pulse-pounding urgency; reimagining “Tropical Ice-Land” as Scooby-Doo zombie funk; turbo-charging “Black-Hearted Boy” with faux Wurlitzer. Still, 19 times out of 20, when I feel a Furnaces craving coming on, Remember isn’t what I reach for.
6. I’m Going Away (2009)
An LP-length “Dear John” letter if there ever was one, I’m Going Away wears its dolor with a characteristic schizophrenia. This means that “Drive To Dallas” breaks up its teary downbeat guide with psychedelic guitar pyro and plaints that verge on mania, and that there are a pair of ecstatic barnburners about partying with a girl named “Charmaine Champagne.” It means that identity-crisis ballad “Lost At Sea” dips and swings so sweetly that the whammy bars and cymbal smashes wash away the tears as they bury this album’s semi-subtextual lede: This is the Fiery Furnaces bidding adios to us, and to one another, at least for a while. Thematically and lyrically, I’m Going Away is arguably Matthew and Eleanor at their most direct and straightforward; there’s a dearth of bizarre musical experimentation, and decidedly less irony than usual. These songs feel like pre-Brill Building standards; it doesn’t require much imagination to picture pick-up bar bands, hard-luck chanteuses, and emancipated church singers absolutely slaying audiences with a heartstring-riffling bit of like “Even In The Rain.” (“Staring At The Steeple” is a bit darker, but it’s a better fit here than any other area of the catalogue.) The Furnaces’ latest (and perhaps last) album feels loose yet coherent, warm yet straitlaced, possessed of a bummed-out jubilation. And, sure, it’s a pinnacle of sorts, but one you’ll rarely revisit for pure pleasure, since it’s a reminder that rowdier work proceeded it and that (more than likely) nothing will succeed it.
5. EP (2005)
A collection of singles and compilation cuts, EP arrives at this point in the countdown almost by default; for all their electrifying zest, no cohesive theme unites these 10 nuggets, and it’s impossible to reconcile them with what’s included on the proper LPs. The ironically autumnal “Here Comes The Summer” is bled, curiously, into the bizarre “Evergreen,” wherein vocal and performance alike seem to be succumbing to the effects of a natural poison. With “Smelling Cigarettes” the Furnaces expand their range of grotesque suburban miniatures; on “Duffer St. George” they extend their passport for the weakest of their customs stamps. There’s also a wily, semi-backmasked reprise of “Tropical Iceland” that makes the Gallowsbird’s Bark version seem staid in comparison. Meanwhile, “Sing For Me” suggests a vintage Candy Land game board transmuted into song, and for the first and last time in the Fiery Furnaces mythology, Matthew gets the stage all to himself.
4. Widow City (2007)
Widow City is a rock record with synthesizer assists that is very loosely about a libertine who killed (or wants to kill) a loathsome toad of a husband and elope with her girlfriend; the telenovela-esque narrative is unclear in the way that the through line of the Aeon Flux animated series is fuzzy. None of which matters when the result is this rich, arch, mischievous, and non-Bitter Tea. Cherry-pick just about any number here and you’ve got a winner: the tremulous, heroic “Duplexes Of The Dead”; “My Egyptian Grammar,” drenched in digital harps, near-dub, and girl-group chagrin; the valorous Valkyrie funk of “The Cabaret Of The Seven Devils”; the marvelous, babble-mouthed jabberwocky of “Pricked In The Heart.” City’s sole failing, despite a bevy of tracks that clock in under three minutes, is its length. It’s worth wondering — from my perspective, anyway — whether the Furnaces’ career would have continued to build steam had they constrained themselves from Tea forward to short, strong albums 30-35 minutes long with no more than, say, 10 songs.
3. Rehearsing My Choir (2005)
The Grandmother Album, as it is colloquially known, clocks in at about an hour. This is significant. Gallowsbird’s Bark rang up at a respectable 46 minutes and change, pushing the envelope of sonic propriety just slightly; Blueberry Boat ballooned out to 76 minutes but was so captivatingly crackers that nobody noticed. Rehearsing My Choir exists in a strange temporal nether-region where, depending on your temperament, it’s: a) way, way too long and totally unlistenable, b) very rough going, or c) perfect. On Choir, the Friedbergers cede the Captain’s chair to Olga Sarantos, their then-83 year-old-grandmother. Eleanor is (willingly) reduced to a character and Greek chorus queen, while Matthew’s compositional mode shifts from “whacko boogie-woogie” to “demented Prairie Home Companion score.” The narrative ping-pongs around 20th century Chicago, powered by wicked gleam in Sarantos’ eye, her tongue (probably) firmly in cheek; this is her show, a bygone diorama of love letters, dicey lunch counter, factories doubling as brothels, and no-fucks-given historical revisionism so warped and zany that copies of this album should be distributed free to every person on the verge of becoming a grandparent. The drubbing Choir takes among fans makes some sense: Sarantos’ Larry “Bud” Melman-esque voice, a lack of anthemic cuts, the fact that by 2005 the internet was already in the process of sanding the average listener’s attention span down to nothing. My personal suspicion is that as Furnaces fans age, their appreciation for the album’s twists and turns will rise, not to mention what the album represents: two indie-rock titans pretty much winning at indie-rock and then teaming up with their elderly grandmother to cut an LP that celebrates her and sheds light on the wiseacre genes her grandkids rode into a specific iconography. No, Choir is probably never going to tear it up when you and the squad are driving to the shore, but throw it on the next time you’re staring down a long drive to visit your parents; you might be surprised how moved you feel, and you might reflect on how far removed the world of your youth — hell, the world of five years ago — is from where you find yourself, right now.
2. Gallowsbird’s Bark (2003)
For anyone arriving at Gallowsbird’s Bark after listening to the band’s later records, the raw, primal punch of this debut may come as a shock. Not fully comfortable (as yet) with the notion of the studio-as-instrument, Eleanor and Matthew leaned hard on a whoa-fi, juke-joint spontaneity; spiced with distorted guitar and whimsical keybs, almost every song here is a near-nonsensical expression of fun or play-acted steeple-chase for the open-hearted kidult to mumble psychotically on endless commutes or during board-meeting lulls. The gentle, generous “Bow Wow” could slip unremarked upon into a Sesame Street Live revue. “Inca Rag/Name Game” explodes piano-recital silliness into amplified-blues trawl. “Crystal Clear” and “Leaky Tunnel” dash so breathlessly through free-associative shit-fits that it’s possible to miss the giggles and twinkles embedded in the scenery at first. Most interesting — and overlooked, critically — is the way “I’m Gonna Run” and “Two Fat Feet” adroitly nudge weight-associated self-shaming into a realm so deeply Dali-esque that external fat jokes lose much of their sting. While Blueberry Boat has earned every plaudit it receives, the Furnaces would never quite nail the joyful spirit of this ramshackle Bark.
1. Blueberry Boat (2004)
The Fiery Furnaces, at their most transcendent, come across as at least 94 percent disengaged from the here and now. Sonically, narratively, and personally, the ideal versions of Matthew and Eleanor are space aliens or time travelers in self-denial: maybe The Coneheads, the titular family from the first Brady Bunch Movie, or “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.” The world is a mystery to the Furnaces, much as the Furnaces are a mystery to it.
Blueberry Boat represents the apex of this notion — an LP that by every account should fall flat on its face; it could only have worked on an indie label. (It’s also almost 80 minutes long; if Boat came out now, it’d have a much harder time finding and keeping an audience.) For a fun thought experiment, just imagine the A&R nightmare that would’ve ensued had Interscope, Island, or Warner Brothers had to hot-potato an album featuring a meandering fratricidal epic (“Chief Inspector Blancheflower”), a shaggy-dog ramble predicated on “dog” being an acronym for “god” and vice versa (“My Dog Was Lost But Now He’s Found”), and a peppy, idle piano ballad about being kidnapped into white slavery (“Spaniolated”). Boat is like a mansion where every space is designed in a garishly different manner but the whole is somehow implausibly welcoming even though it should be terrifying.
Context-wise, a paradigm shift is certainly at play here, with a squadron of synthesizers and keyboard imported to rudely dynamite the garage blues of Gallowsbird’s Bark on longer songs best described as suites. The debut’s playfulness is in evidence, but there’s a rigor at work as the Furnaces go semi prog, setting their sights on a wider world: ballsy opener “Quay Cur” and the title track fever-dreaming disjointedly through a John Barth novel rewritten by Garrison Keillor; “Chief Inspector Blancheflower” and galumphing “Chris Michaels” trolling the America of Maury; vertigo-suffering “Mason City” hopping into a DeLorean to explore 1910; skeletal curio “1917” and synthesized crack-puff “Birdie Brain” loonily anticipating the more insufferable aspects of Bitter Tea years in advance.
Every moment here is an uneasy triumph, even when they involve random snatches of Inuit and clashing, Wolf Eyes-grade cauldrons of noise. Yet a reflective sadness surrounds every boarding of Boat, too, because in the wake of this LP, nothing the Fiery Furnaces accomplished would be quite as startling or left-field. In some ways, every subsequent entry in the band’s catalog reads as a misguided attempt to re-enact the wobbly high-wire spectacle endemic to “Blancheflower,” “Wolf Notes,” or “Straight Street” — that vital spark of lunatic invention every musician would kill to ignite, that every deep listener dreams of being immolated by.