A couple weeks ago — on a fine day, dry and bright — I went for a long drive with a friend. She was getting bored with the tropicália album she had put on, and the duty fell to me to choose the next soundtrack for the afternoon. I pulled out the new Fiery Furnaces record and asked if she was familiar with them. She wasn’t. Having already spent a fair amount of time with the album, I was pleased enough with it, but surprised at how conventional, how tame it was, especially in comparison to their more aggressively avant-garde work. The album is easily their most approachable since Bitter Tea, if not as far back as Gallowsbird’s Bark.
It’s been a busy decade for the Friedberger siblings, and the odd diversity of their back catalog helps to obscure just how promisingly they began their musical careers. Gallowsbird’s Bark was quirky, but far from difficult. The Fiery Furnaces seemed a smart fit within the post-White Stripes new blues-rock pack. Now seven years later, whatever promise they possessed had long ago been spent on poorly received conceptual projects. It’s a shame, because even at their most indulgent, they retained a rare sense of melody (as well as a refreshingly absurd sense of humor).
I’m Going Away, The Fiery Furnaces’ second album for Thrill Jockey (discounting their live release from last year), isn’t indulgent, but it definitely retains their old playfulness. Its songs are also uncharacteristically brief, which makes the record flow better than any of their recent efforts. All of these qualities are what made me think that it would be a good choice for a spring drive. Boy, was I wrong.
From the first seconds of the titular opening track, my companion — whose critical instincts I trust more than most — was none too impressed. Her feelings weren’t those of hate, but of utter indifference. The second song — my personal favorite — came on, and I hoped that it would shift her perceptions. It didn’t. I was bewildered. Entitled “Drive To Dallas,” it ends with a delicious moment of flexible melody. Eleanor Friedberger twists a single line (“If I see you tomorrow/ I don’t know what I will do”) into a seemingly endless series of permutations. The band matches her, eggs her along, as the tempo steadily increases. It’s a wonderful moment, but my friend thought it dull and unimaginative.
The experience jarred me. Was it possible that I had a Furnace-shaped blind spot? Was I, as a longtime fan, just another easy mark? I really can’t say. After another couple songs, I figured it was best to give up. Even my favorite songs here weren’t going to sway her opinion.
Since the drive, I keep analyzing what compels me about I’m Going Away. It's clearly an improvement on Widow City, which was turgid and blunt, sacrificing many of The Fiery Furnaces’ strengths for the sake of a regressively aggressive rock sound. And the standout songs here all sound refreshingly outmoded; the one-two punch of “Cut The Cake” and “Even In The Rain” resemble hotel lounge renditions of ’50s pop songs, but not without a nod to modern musical conventions. It’s still terribly precious, but that needn’t be a bad thing. Not always. Even some of the hammier songs, like “Keep Me In The Dark,” are married to an eager-to-please tunefulness, which makes them, at the very least, palatable.
However, I’m Going Away does feel a little too hemmed-in. There are a number of moments, as on the swaggering “Staring At The Steeple,” when the band threatens to break into a raucous E-Street shuffle. They never make good on that threat. Maybe my friend would have liked this album better had it been less restrained, had the Friedberger siblings not held themselves back as much. I know I would. There isn’t a formula for what makes a song or an album work. Whereas The Fiery Furnaces used to suffer from a lack of restraint, they suffer here from having too much. Considering their tarnished reputations, it’s an understandable decision, if not an entirely satisfying one. But what do I, adequately pleased as I am, know anyhow?
1. I'm Going Away
2. Drive to Dallas
3. The End is Near
4. Charmaine Champagne
5. Cut the Cake
6. Even in the Rain
7. Staring at the Steeple
8. Ray Bouvier
9. Keep Me in the Dark
10. Lost At Sea
11. Cups and Punches
12. Take Me Round Again