The Fiery Furnaces
Styles: experimental mashed potato sculptures
Others: and to quote: “a Paul McCartney-ized Led Zeppelin or Van Morrison”
If one thing has become clearer since their abstract sea shanties evolved into tuneless grandmother tales, it’s that Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger don’t care about popular music. At least not the popular music of this decade, or even the last. Pick up any Fiery Furnaces record and give it a spin; you will come away with the impression that the Friedbergers are oblivious to any musical trends or developments since the tail-end of the 1970s (and just maybe a headache, too). On Widow City, the band’s sixth full-length in as many years, this is more concrete than ever. Brother, sister, and friends take us back to a time when the killer chord progression, mutating melody, and LP format still reigned supreme.
The Furnaces have streamlined their experimental proclivities into a more refined essence on Widow City, bringing them back to the “simpler” sonic territory of 2003’s terrific Blueberry Boat, while sounding completely different. Still, it's a Furnaces record through and through. Songs blend together into epic suites (sometimes within the very same track), Eleanor bleats away in the same emotionless monotone, Matthew employs a wide variety of hard-to-name instruments, and some of the tracks are still pretty long. But at least this time out there’s no backmasking. (.feiler a tahw ,wehP)
Widow City is by far the band's toughest-as-nails record yet, with Matthew incessantly setting fire to the stage. Playing all the instruments (save for drums), it's Matthew ripping those guitar strings to shreds -- and honestly, who knew he had it in him? Numerous songs have the sort of rip-roaring axe-work that’s as hard as anything Josh Homme’s written lately (all love to Josh Homme). Check “Clear Signal From Cairo,” “Ex-Guru,” and “Automatic Husband.” And, Jesus, just listen to “Navy Nurse” for a minute. It’s enough to startle and elate, while leaving one a bit disappointed that the hard-rock influence is never carried for longer than a few bars at a time.
It’s easy enough to pinpoint standout tracks like “Duplexes of the Dead” and “Restorative Beer,” but it’s ultimately fruitless to examine Widow City as anything less than a whole -- and as a whole, it works. Still, it is top-heavy, starting out strong and eventually curtailing into a jumbled and uneasy balance in the second half, with the later sections shifting from the Furnaces’ signature easy pop to some of their more trying experimental fare. But it’s more even than Bitter Tea, and a resounding step further into a sound with which the siblings clearly feel comfortable.
Widow City is scattered, ambitious, and occasionally overwrought, if always overlong (even at a comparatively slim 59 minutes). Yet it’s hard to fault it or the band for these shortcomings, because isn’t that just the Friedberger way? The release of something else as clean-cut and unchallenging as Gallowsbird’s Bark or EP doesn't appear likely. It sounds helpless to say that the Friedbergers are too far-gone at this point, planted firmly on the ground of experimentation, prodded by their incessant progressive tendencies; but it's not far from the truth. The Fiery Furnaces will keep making records like Widow City, probably once or twice a year, and the music world is no worse off for it. The siblings have their misses, and will certainly always have their detractors, but Widow City is easily their sharpest show of artistic growth since Blueberry Boat. This reviewer, for one, is pleased to once again count The Fiery Furnaces on his short list.
1. The Philadelphia Grand Jury
2. Duplexes of the Dead
3. Automatic Husband
5. Clear Signal From Cairo
6. My Egyptian Grammar
7. The Old Hag Is Sleeping
8. Japanese Slippers
9. Navy Nurse
10. Uncle Charlie
11. Right by Conquest
12. Restorative Beer
13. Wicker Whatnots
14. Cabaret of the Seven Devils
15. Pricked in the Heart
16. Widow City