It starts, as all things do, at childhood. A crucial moment of brother-sister connection: the older of the two, Matthew Friedberger, buying a guitar and drum kit for his younger sibling, Eleanor, to encourage her ambitions of becoming a musician. You can see the spark of a creative lifetime birthed in that single moment — the earliest encouragement from an older brother also responsible for adolescent teasing that “tormented [her] for years.”
Everything made by the Fiery Furnaces — the band that the two formed in adulthood — has been built on this familial bond. It’s one of many reasons the duo has become my favorite band the longer I’ve sat with their catalog: Everything they’ve made, no matter how outlandish or erratic, reads first and foremost like the genuine connection between sister and brother. And it’s rarely been more apparent than their debut record Gallowsbird’s Bark — turning 20 this weekend — where the Friedbergers’ shared love of blues and classic rock calcifies into an idiosyncratic sound all its own.
For all the jukes and turns that the Furnaces’ music has taken over the years, it’s remarkable that the first song on Gallowsbird’s Bark arrives with the band’s sound fully formed. “South Is Only A Home” enters like a drunken blues band barging home and immediately stumbling down a flight of stairs in perfect rhythm, wah-wah guitar cranked to max, its pounding piano chords flanked on both sides by a descending melody — from that very same piano and a thin, twinkling synth shadowing its every move. It arrives like an onslaught, like a kitchen sink riff of the blues form using every instrument within arm’s reach, like a child reaching for every last pot and pan in the cabinets to clang on. This is the Fiery Furnaces at some of their most “conventional,” but it holds the bones of even their most bizarre future work in the sheer eccentricity of its tools alone.
That’s one element that has always defined the Fiery Furnaces from Day One: Eleanor and Matt have been deeply unafraid with their music, even when it works within the age-old forms upon which rock music was built. Just a passing listen to the lyrics is enough to reveal how unusual the Friedbergers’ approach to blues songwriting is, and that’s before even trying to ascertain what the songs are actually about. (“I slit my wrists with my Swingline/ Copied myself 500 times/ I pierced my ears with a three-hole punch/ Ate 12 dozen donuts for lunch,” go Eleanor’s opening lines on “I’m Gonna Run,” ostensibly about cubicle work malaise.) Though the record is relatively straightforward by Furnaces standards, when song structures go rogue, they go way off-map, like the slow descent in the bridge of “Don’t Dance Her Down” that arrives like a future transmission of the tangential instrumental passages from Blueberry Boat or Bitter Tea. The band’s personality was already all there, if the tip-off that Matt also spent interviews throwing out quotes like “We’d like to play for little kids and in old folks’ homes and play in nasty bars” wasn’t evidence enough.
Though Matt, unlike on future records, only takes a prominent vocal presence on the early track “Inca Rag/Name Game,” his dynamic with Eleanor is still all over the album. Many of the tracks were birthed from Matt probing Eleanor for her stories of traveling across Europe; according to Eleanor, “It all really started when I came back from England with Matt saying to me, ‘So, what was it like?’ and me trying to tell a funny story to amuse him.” The resulting digressive pseudo-travelogues of songs like “South Is Only A Home” or “Leaky Tunnel” became a staple for the Furnaces, who would deploy that format in increasingly winding fashion on later songs like “Chris Michaels” and “Borneo.” Not all Fiery Furnaces songs emerged from Matt literally interviewing Eleanor, but Gallowsbird’s Bark — and all of the band’s work — feels like a dialogue between Eleanor and Matt above all else, especially in the head-on collisions of disparate instrumentation and influences each sibling brings to the table.
In the context of the Furnaces’ oeuvre, Gallowsbird’s Bark is almost disarmingly ramshackle. Mere months before releasing the intricate Korg-prog epics of Blueberry Boat, the Friedbergers were unafraid to keep some of their initial recordings together endearingly unadorned, leaving in guitar parts that sound like demo takes (“Two Fat Feet”) and even a flubbed track intro (“Tropical Ice-Land,” in an early languid form predating its more well-known all-out jaunt on 2005’s EP). “Bow Wow,” a song that begins as a janky keyboard loop, somehow manages to break itself into an even more jagged form by the end, with a piano in lock-step quickly veering out of time as the backing loop disintegrates entirely. Learning that the record was essentially recorded as a demo in three days (and Eleanor’s first time recording in a studio) only adds to its charm, even if Eleanor herself has since voiced that she “can’t listen to it” due to how rudimentary it sounds compared to everything that followed.
Still, the record possesses an immediacy that even many of the best Furnaces albums that followed couldn’t match. In part due to the shorter song lengths and in part due to Eleanor emerging from the sessions like a seasoned blues shredder — ripping sidewinder solos on tracks like “Leaky Tunnel” and “Worry Worry” — Gallowsbird’s Bark hits like a lean proof-of-concept record for the Friedbergers’ whole deal. Hearing the album’s final stretch — a medley of the primitive version of “Tropical Ice-Land,” a somber played-straight cover of William E. Myer’s “Rub- Alcohol Blues,” and the herky-jerky stomp of “We Got Back The Plague” — with hindsight, the roadmap for the Furnaces’ vast futures in rambling multi-part song structures and patchwork live set configurations is practically laid out in full. What was an auspicious but unassuming debut, and one of the strongest straight blues rock albums of the 2000s, is now retrospectively nestled inside the Trojan horse of what would soon become one of the decade’s most peculiar acts.
It’s funny to look back on the reception of Gallowsbird’s Bark in 2003 with a kind of quaint awe. Far before the Friedbergers divided critics and listeners with elaborate synth operas and grandmother-narrated radio plays, they came onto the scene with a debut that was almost unilaterally received positively. Just imagine: The Fiery Furnaces without polarized reactions! Frequently championed as the next White Stripes due to their bluesy influences and an actual not-just-pretend sibling dynamic! Just a year before they would go on to make records that some journalists would call “toe-curlingly unlistenable“!
Gallowsbird’s Bark isn’t quite my favorite Furnaces record — I still prefer the high-concept swings for the fences of Blueberry Boat and the sturdier rock-heavy cuts of Widow City most days. But there’s something undeniable about it still, like seeing a grungy garage rock band playing forgotten standards to a near-empty barroom on a weeknight. The exhilaration is there on the album’s best cut, “Leaky Tunnel,” which churns along a slow-burn synth tornado, Eleanor’s travelogue less sung than barked, her guitar strums and Matt’s piano mixed as if coming from across the far end of the room. Then, just when the track drops everything but Eleanor’s parts, a flurrying drum fill crashes in, like it’s barreling through the walls of the studio. It’s a moment of pure kineticism, captured purely via unpredictability. That’s what the Fiery Furnaces have always been.