Fiery Furnaces

(Copyright © 2004-23 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

Gallowsbird's Bark (2003) , 7.5/10
Blueberry Boat (2004) , 7/10
Rehearsing My Choir (2005), 7/10
Bitter Tea (2006) , 7/10
Widow City (2007), 6.5/10
Mat Friedberger: Winter Women and Holy Ghost Language School (2006), 5/10
I'm Going Away (2009) , 5/10
Eleanor Friedberger: Last Summer (2011), 5/10

As the USA took Britain's place in launching over-rated "next big things" such as the White Stripes, the Fiery Furnaces, formed by Matthew Friedberger and Eleanor Friedberger, siblings from Chicago who relocated to New York, happened to be in the right place at the right time. Except that they deserved what the White Stripes merely abused. Gallowsbird's Bark (Rough Trade, 2003) was one chaotic burst of creativity. To start with, rambling vocalist-preacher-exorcist Eleanor Friedberger belongs to the school of Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde. Once her anti-crooning style is coupled with the spiked guitar riffs and the most unstable dynamics of recent years, the result sounds awfully inspired by the frenzied sloppy blues-rock of the Rolling Stones in their most drunk/deranged condition, replete with a Nicky Hopkins-ian clangy honkytonk piano, or, quite simply, Captain Beefheart's Magic Band fronted by Janis Joplin or any anti-folk heroine. South Is Only a Home unfolds like a hysterical sermon over a childish, insistent piano and drums backing (something in between the Velvet Underground's White Light White Heat and early Frank Zappa's circus music). The structure of the anthemic Gale Blow is a masterful combination of a hymn-like melody and a march-like rhythm that seem to mock each other but actually manage to enhance each other. The swamp beat (doubled by a monster synthesizer) of Leaky Tunnel leads a gargantuan dance that gets quickly out of control, while the pounding pow-wow dance of Two Fat Feet releases a soaring refrain through its maze of noise. The music-hall piano rigmarole of Inca Rag/ Name Game slowly metamorphoses into a White Light White Heat-style boogie, while the similarly old-fashioned Bow Wow picks up enough dirt along the way to decay into abstract cacophony. Songs flash by like a stream of severely altered states of mind.
The blues is more than a mere post scriptum. It permeates some of the most poignant moments from the Delta blues of I'm Gonna Run to the Chicago blues of Asthma Attack, and, above all, the majestic, apocalyptic We Got Back The Plague that closes and crowns the album.
Whether engaged in the martial Crystal Clear or paralyzed in the folkish Tropical Ice Land, or minimized in the pseudo-country ballads Up in the North and Don't Dance Her Down, Eleanor Friedberger's voice dominates the proceedings. Furthermore, a few short low-key monologues prove the vocalist's recitation skills (Rub-Alcohol Blues).
Sometimes the exuberant neglect of their arrangements evokes Pere Ubu. However, the Fiery Furnaces concoct a more robust rock sound, and are often capable of straight songwriting. Their versatile and multi-faceted style has few precedents.

Blueberry Boat (Rough Trade, 2004), ostensibly dedicated to the Who's mini-opera A Quick One, stretched out into longer and more adventurous songs, while adding a more sophisticated use of electronic keyboards.
The 11-minute Quay Cur begins like an abstract, dissonant piano sonata played over a syncopated and distorted electronic beat. Then the singer intones a childish refrain. Then the music delves into a Frank Zappa-ish fanfares, only to return to the childish motif sung in a lower tone at a slower pace until the male voice joins in for the close. As a mini-opera it is a bit weak and disconnected.
The nine-minute Blueberry Boat opens with a circus-like atmosphere, but then seems to mimick Jethro Tull and plunges into a strained, tortuous melodrama.
The eight-minute Chris Michaels borrows the riff and the emphasis from the Who's Tommy, but the dialogue that follows is far from robust. By the time the eight-minute Mason City rolls by, one has understood the general idea: this is a recitation-oriented work that assigns a different kind of accompaniment to each section, based on the lyrics, which Eleanor Friedberger often sings in a serious tone reminiscent of the Jefferson Airplane's Grace Slick, but without her vocal power. Her brother complements her in a rather expression-less register, sometimes too colloquial to be called "singing". The gravity of their singing peaks with the nine-minute Chief Inspector Blancheflower, one of their most cohesive recitals.
These lengthy pieces, each meant to be a form of theater, are ambitious collages of styles (and tours de force of arrangement) but lack the kind of musical-narrative logic that could hold them together. In fact, the best of their theatrical songs may well be the short 1917, that is only spoken but relies on a futuristic background.
Thankfully, the blues-tinged dementia of the first album continues to fibrillate inside Straight Street (another breathtaking combination of cabaret-style piano and vocals), Paw Paw Tree (another miracle of abstract noise coalescing into vibrant music), My Dog Was Lost (another swampy rock'n'roll), Birdie Brain (finally an infectious refrain).
The band's adventures in progressive-rock are only partially successful.

EP (Rough Trade, 2005) collects rarities and unreleased tracks.

The concept album Rehearsing My Choir (Rough Trade, 2005), structured as a dialogue between the older Olga Sarantos (negative character), who also happens to be the duo's grandmother, and the younger Eleanor Friedberger (positive character) over a bed of eccentric and cacophonous sounds, tries to be both ambitious and amateurish, austere and cartoonish. The idea is brilliant and groundbreaking, to say the least. Basically, it is a suburban white man's version of the concept of hip-hop music: analyzing life aloud against an atmospheric soundscape. Here the soundscape is the musical equivalent of hyper-neurosis, and the verbal analysis is a woman's melancholy reminiscences pit against another woman's hopes. Also brilliant is the casting: two "singers" who are not really singers and are certainly not true storytellers. While controversial, the deliberately childish accompaniment is an appropriate pillar for the vocals and the core of the whole experiment, crafting moments of masochistic delight such as 4823 22nd Street (a Caribbean orgy turning into a limping piano-synth skit) and The Garfield El (a musichall skit with frantic toy piano, male spoken-word recitation, female nursery-rhyme vocals).
The most far-reaching pieces are strange monsters that highlight both the talents and the limitations of the Fiery Furnaces. The brief Though Let's Be Fair unveils a more tragic side of the project, as the dark tones prevail over the humorous tones. (So does the closing Does It Remind You of When). The six-minute The Wayward Granddaughter sounds like a mini-opera, a dialogue between the two voices over disco beat, burbling synthesizer and town-fair organ. The story is accompanied by an ever changing parade of musical styles, frequently bordering on cabaret-ist cheerfulness. However, the idea does not translate well into sound, and the lengthy excursus does not seem to reach proper closure. Much better is Guns Under the Counter, that boasts a driving narrative structure and litters it with deliciously old-fashioned genres as well as avantgarde-style passages. The nine-minute Seven Silver Curses combines the best of both worlds, the dramatic play and the musical melodrama, weaving an endless series of stylistic metamorphoses. The outcome evokes both Frank Zappa's mock-operettas and Robert Ashley's anti-operas while maintaining a core that is closer to the music-hall and the cabaret.
Despite the ostensively spartan backing, this album is as a dense container of musical ideas. The sheer wealth of snippets that were used to assemble the "songs" is breathtaking. If the collage does not always work smoothly, there is no question that Fiery Furnaces have coined a new paradigm for the rock opera. Seldom do rock musicians display such a profound vision.

(Translation by/ Tradotto da Stefano Pertile)

Nel momento in cui gli USA hanno preso il posto della Gran Bretagna nel lanciare sopravvalutate grandi novità come i White Stripes, i Fiery Furnaces, formati da Matthew Friedberger e da Eleanor Friedberger, fratelli di Chicago che si sono trasferiti a New York, si sono trovati nel posto giusto al momento giusto. Salvo che loro hanno meritato ciò di cui i White Stripes hanno semplicemente abusato. Gallowsbird's Bark (Rough Trade, 2003) era una caotica esplosione di creatività. Per cominciare, l’errante cantante-predicatrice-esorcista Eleanor Friedberger appartiene alla scuola di Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde. Una volta che il suo stile anti-crooning si è sposato con i pungenti riff di chitarra e con le più instabili dinamiche degli ultimi anni, il risultato suona terribilmente ispirato dal forsennato e trasandato blues-rock dei Rolling Stones nelle condizioni più ubriache/sconvolte, ripieno di piano honkytonk alla Nicky Hopkins, o semplicemente, una Magic Band di Captain Beefheart guidata da Janis Joplin o da qualche altra eroina anti-folk. South Is Only a Home si stende come un sermone isterico su un suono di piano bambinesco ed insistente e su sottofondi di batteria (qualcosa a metà tra i Velvet Underground di White Light White Heat e la musica circense del primo Frank Zappa). La struttura dell’ inneggiante Gale Blow è una magistrale combinazione di una melodia da inno con un ritmo da marcia che sembrano prendersi burla l’una dell’altra, ma in realtà si valorizzano a vicenda. Il ritmo (raddoppiato da un mostruoso sintetizzatore) di Leaky Tunnel trascina una danza gargantuesca che presto diviene fuori controllo, mentre la martellante danza pow-wow di Two Fat Feet libera un ritornello sublime che spicca il volo attraverso il suo groviglio di rumore. La filastrocca Inca Rag/ Name Game, con un piano da music-hall, cambia forma in un boogie alla White Light White Heat, mentre Bow Wow, sempre vecchio stile, raccoglie lungo la strada abbastanza sporcizia da degenerare in una cacofonia astratta. Le canzoni lampeggiano alla maniera di un flusso di stati mentali fortemente alterati.

Il blues è più che un mero post scriptum. Permea alcuni dei momenti più profondi, dal blues del Delta di I'm Gonna Run, al blues stile Chicago di Asthma Attack,e, soprattutto, la maestosa, apocalittica We Got Back The Plaghe, che chiude e corona l’album.

Che sia ingaggiata nella marziale Crystal Clear o paralizzata nel folk di Tropical Ice Land, o minimizzata nelle ballate pseudo-country Up in the North e Don't Dance Her Down, la voce di Eleanor Friedberger domina l’azione. Inoltre, alcuni brevi monologhi provano l’abilità di recitazione della cantante (Rub-Alcohol Blues).

A volte l’esuberante trascuratezza dei loro arrangiamenti evoca i Pere Ubu. Comunque, i Fiery Furnaces preparano un suono rock più robusto, e sono spesso capaci di un songwriting diretto. Il loro stile versatile e sfaccettato ha pochi precedenti.

Blueberry Boat (Rough Trade, 2004), apparentemente dedicato alla mini-opera degli Who A Quick One, si stende su canzoni più lunghe ed avventurose, aggiungendo un più sofisticato utilizzo delle tastiere. Quay Cur, lunga 11 minuti, inizia come un’astratta e dissonante sonata per pianoforte suonata su un ritmo elettronico distorto e sincopato. Poi la voce intona un ritornello fanciullesco. Poi la musica rivanga le fanfare alla Frank Zappa, solo per ritornare al motivo fanciullesco cantato in tono più basso e a ritmo più lento finché la voce maschile non si unisce per la conclusione. Come mini opera è un po’ debole e sconnessa.

Blueberry Boat, di 9 minuti, si apre con un’atmosfera circense, ma poi sembra scimmiottare i Jethro Tull e si immerge in un melodramma tortuoso e sforzato.

Chris Michaels, di 8 minuti, prende a prestito i riff e l’enfasi da Tommy degli Who, ma il dialogo che segue è tutt’altro che robusto. Prima che Mason City scorra via, si è compresa l’idea generale: è un lavoro orientato alla recitazione che assegna un differente tipo di accompagnamento ad ogni sezione, basato sulle liriche, che Eleanor Friedberger canta spesso in tono serioso che ricorda Grace Slick dei Jefferson Airplane, ma senza la sua potenza vocale. Suo fratello la completa in un registro piuttosto inespressivo, che a volte è troppo colloquiale per essere chiamato "canto". La gravità del cantato tocca il picco con Chief Inspector Blancheflower, uno dei loro recital più coesivi.

Questi lunghi pezzi, ciascuno dei quali concepito come forma di teatro, sono ambiziosi collages di stili (e tours de force di arrangiamenti) ma mancano della logica musicale-narrativa che potrebbe tenerli insieme. Infatti, la migliore delle loro canzoni teatrali può essere 1917, che è soltanto parlata ma dipende da un sottofondo futuristico.

Fortunatamente, la demenza tinta di blues del primo album continua a fibrillare in Straight Street (un’altra eccitante combinazione di cantato e di piano in stile cabaret), in Paw Paw Tree (un altro miracolo di rumore astratto che si fonde con musica vibrante), My Dog Was Lost (un altro rock’n’roll swampy), Birdie Brain ( finalmente un ritornello contagioso).

Le avventure della band nel progressive-rock sono solo parzialmente riuscite.


EP (Rough Trade, 2005) raccoglie rarità e brani inediti.

Il concept album Rehearsing My Choir (Rough Trade, 2005), organizzato come un dialogo tra la più vecchia Olga Sarantos (carattere negativo), che è anche la nonna del duo, e la più giovane Eleanor Friedberger (carattere positivo) su un letto di suoni eccentrici e cacofonici, vuole essere sia ambizioso che amatoriale, austero e cartonesco. L’idea è brillante e dirompente, a dir poco. Essenzialmente, è una versione del concetto della musica hip-hop vista dall’uomo bianco suburbano: analizzare la vita a voce alta in contrasto con un ambientazione sonora di atmosfera. Qui quest’atmosfera è l’equivalente musicale di un’iper-nevrosi, e l’analisi verbale è costituita da ricordi melanconici di una donna opposti alle speranze di un’altra donna. Anche il casting è brillante: due "cantanti" che non sono veramente tali ma che non sono certamente dei veri cantastorie. Benché controverso, l’accompagnamento deliberatamente fanciullesco è un appropriato pilastro per le voci e nucleo dell’intero esperimento, plasmando momenti di masochistica gioia come We Wrote Letters Everyday, The Garfield El and Seven Silver Curses. Nonostante le ambientazioni apparentemente spartane, quest’album è così vicino alle opere di Robert Ashley come la musica rock non è mai stata. Raramente dei musicisti rock mostrano una visione così profonda.

Bitter Tea (Fat Possum, 2006), originally conceived as the pop counterpart to its predecessor, was eccentric even by their standards. The emphasis had somehow shifted to the vocals and the arrangements were inherently tied to the way the voice derailed the melody. Greater doses of electronic noises were employed to further detonate the unstable fragile structures and further disorient the listener. Last but not least, Matthew Friedberger had grown a passion for quaint keyboards more often associated with cheap forms of entertainment. Their unlikely marriage with electronics yielded a split personality.
The otherworldly fusion of musique concrete and naive pop, reminiscent of what the United States Of America did in the Sixties, permeated ditties such as In My Little Thatched Hut (with a touch of Suicide's neurosis), Bitter Tea for tiny android noises, pounding Balkan rhythm and treated vocals (perhaps the zenith of this kind of space-pop), Teach Me Sweetheart, a simple melody diluted inside an abstract free-form arrangement, etc.
I'm In No Mood and childish Borneo showed their debts to the futuristic vaudeville of the Cabaret Voltaire and to Brecht's technique of "estrangement" (probably unconsciously quoting the prog-rock of the Art Bears).
Throughout these experiments they borrow and distort classic styles. For example, Waiting to Know You sounds like a remnant from the age of surf music (the melody) and rhythm'n'blues (the rhythm). Oh Sweet Woods is basically a deconstruction of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean. The radio-friendly Benton Harbor Blues (one of their few melodies in a major key) echoes soul-rock of the 1970s.
The sonic delight of the album peaks with The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry: a fast skipping beat, a looping acid piano lay a hypnotic carpet that carries the male's Gregorian-like melody; the stronger female melody causes a reaction in the male melody, almost like in a gospel-ish call-and-response. The two voices duet until the woman prevails and leads the act to a close in a plain spoken tone. The two voices are contrasted again in the more organic Nevers (the peak of Eleanor Friedberger's nonsensical lyrics, such as "nothing never i'll ever learnt"), a dialogue mirrored by two keyboards complementing each other (also reprised in a reggae version the end).
There is hardly a wasted moment in the whole album.

(Translation by/ Tradotto da Emanuele Smargiassi)

Bitter Tea (Fat Possum, 2006), originariamente concepito come la controparte pop del suo predecessore, è eccentrico anche per i loro standard. L'enfasi è in qualche modo spostata sul canto e gli arrangiamenti sono legati ai deragliamenti della voce rispetto alla melodia. L'imponente ricorso ai rumori elettronici viene utilizzato per far esplodere la già instabile e fragile struttura e per disorientare ulteriormente l'ascoltatore. Infine, ma comunque degno di nota, Matthew Friedberger ha sviluppato una passione per le tastiere strambalate sempre più spesso associate ad una forma di facile intrattenimento. L'improbabile sposalizio con l'elettronica ha generato una doppia personalità.

La mistica fusione di musica concreta, materiale e di pop naive, reminescenza di quanto fatto dagli United States Of America negli anni Sessanta, permea canzoncine come In My Little Thatched Hut (con tocchi nevrotici alla Suicide), Bitter Tea con leggeri rumori androidi e soppesati ritmi Balcanici e cori raffinati (forse lo zenith di questa sorta di space-pop), Teach Me Sweetheart, una semplice melodia diluita in un astratto arraggiamento in forma libera, etc.

I'm In No Mood e l'infantile Borneo mostrano il debito che hanno nei confronti del futuristico vaudeville del Cabaret Voltaire dello “straniamento” Brecht-iano (probabilmente citano inconsciamente il prog-rock degli Art Bears).

Attraverso tutti questi esperimenti prendono in prestito e distorgono stili classici. Per esempio, Waiting to Know You sembra un riflusso dell'era della surf music per quanto riguarda la melodia, e del rhythm'n'blues per la ritmica. Oh Sweet Woods è in pratica la decostruzione di Billie Jean di Michael Jackson. La “radio-friendly” Benton Harbor Blues (una delle loro poche melodie in chiave minore) riecheggia del soul-rock degli anni Settanta.

La delizia sonica dell'album si raggiunge con The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry: ritmo veloce e saltellante, pianoforte acido e ripetitivo che tesse un tappeto che sorregge una melodia gregoriana cantata da voce maschile; la parte femminile, più consistente, provoca una reazione nella controparte, come in un botta e risposta gospel. Le due voci duettano fino a quando la femminile prevale e conduce alla chiusura con un piatto parlato. Le due voci sono di nuovo in contrasto nella più organica Nevers (l'apice dei testi nonsense di Eleanor Friedberger, “nothing never i'll ever learnt"), un dialogo che si rispecchia nelle due tastiere che si completano a vicenda (ripresa anche in versione reggae). C'è davvero poco da scartare in questo lavoro.

Widow City (Thrill Jockey, 2007) marks a return to a more linear, extroverted and fluid form of expression. While the attention span is still minuscule (i.e., songs last just about the time to let the listener figure out what they were meant to be), the collection exudes a new air of professional care that can only be attributed to unintentional growth as musicians.
The seven-minute The Philadelphia Grand Jury toys with cabaret overtones, but the detours are more interesting than the main plot. By the same token, the six-minute Clear Signal from Cairo undergoes countless format changes. As a matter of fact, several songs sound like panels of a musical play, sometimes bordering on cartoon music: Automatic Husband, My Egyptian Grammar, The Old Hag Is Sleeping. These extend into verbose power-pop ditties Duplexes of the Dead, Ex-Guru, Restorative Beer. The best musical creation is perhaps Japanese Slippers, that maintains that eccentric-cabaret format while boasting an epic pace and a catchy progression. The quality decreases dramatically from the tenth song till the end, a sign that maybe this should have been a shorter album.

Mat Friedberger debuted solo with the mediocre two-disc Winter Women and Holy Ghost Language School (2006).

Remember (Thrill Jockey, 2008) is a double-disc live album.

(Translation by/ Tradotto da Tobia D’Onofrio)

Widow City (Thrill Jockey, 2007) segna il ritorno ad una forma espressiva più lineare, fluida ed estroversa. Mentre la capacità di concentrazione resta minima (cioè, le canzoni durano appena il tempo necessario perché l’ascoltatore riesca ad immaginare come "dovrebbero" suonare), la raccolta respira una fresca aria di cura professionale, che può solo essere attribuita ad una spontanea maturazione artistica (musicale).

I sette minuti di The Philadelphia Grand Jury giocano con tonalità armoniche da cabaret, ma le digressioni risultano più interessanti della trama principale. Allo stesso modo i sei minuti di Clear Signal From Cairo presentano innumerevoli cambi di format. In realtà molti pezzi sembrano siparietti di una commedia musicale, talvolta al limite della musica dei cartoni animati: Automatic Husband, My Egyptian Grammar, The Old Hag Is Sleeping. Da qui vengono fuori le prolisse canzoncine power-pop Dupelexes of The Dead, Ex-Guru, Restorative Beer. Forse la migliore creazione musicale è Japanese Slippers, che mantiene l’eccentrico format da cabaret mentre sfoggia un’andatura epica e un’orecchiabile progressione. La qualità decresce drammaticamente dalla decima canzone in poi, dimostrando che l’album avrebbe dovuto essere più corto.

Matt Friedberger debutta come solista con il mediocre doppio cd Winter Women And Holy Ghost Language School (2006).

I'm Going Away (Thrill Jockey, 2009) is their simpler album yet, and, not coincidentally, it opens with an amateurish cover of the traditional I'm Going Away. The duo has vastly scaled back its artistic ambitions. Alas, the relatively uneventful structures implicitly push to the foreground the lyrics, and, as usual with rock musicians, Eleanor Friedberger isn't exactly a Nobel laureate poet. Any minor country singer hailing from Nashville can write better stories and with a more expansive vocabulary. Another limit that stands out is related to the instrumental and vocal skills, that were never spectacular to start with, but at least they were dazzlingly innovative. Due to its sudden accelerations, the lounge anthem Drive To Dallas sounds like a parody of Don McLean or Billy Joel. The longer Take Me Round Again is a more serious take on the same idea, a country hoedown to the core and adding a touch of southern-rock pride. The End Is Near mimicks Burt Bacharach's easy listening pop-jazz. The bluesy cry Cut The Cake would be perfect for Macy Gray. These slow, mellow, soulful ballads marked a calculated retreat, and perhaps the beginning of a new career. What was left was mostly the hype: those who missed them when they were great now indulged in superlatives about their music. The more vibrant songs were not particularly original. The retro vignette Charmaine Champagne launches into an amusing charleston, but it pales in comparison with similar ventures by Rip Rig & Panic. Even In The Rain (possibly the standout) echoed both Cat Stevens's melodic progressions of the 1970s (Wild World and the likes). The clapping-driven catchy refrain Keep Me In The Dark jumps suddenly to the 1960s of Phil Spector Lost At Sea borrows from both Bob Dylan and Jefferson Airplane for a mildly solemn meditation. It's way too little too late. This should have been an EP centered on Take Me Round Again and Even In The Rain.

Eleanor Friedberger started her own project with Last Summer (2011), that contains the catchy I Won't Fall Apart on You Tonight and My Mistakes (as well as the revision of an early Fiery Furnaces number, Here Comes the Summer). The lavishly arranged Owl's Head Park is typical of the rest: evocative elegies that explore the soul of New York City.

In january 2011 Matthew Friedberger started releasing an LP every two months, each one playing a single instrument, plus two bonus LPs for those who bought the whole series; i.e., the eight-LP box-set Solos (Thrill Jockey, 2011).

(Copyright © 2004 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
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