Last week, the Pitchfork Music Festival was officially canceled, an inevitable development in the midst of a rapidly deteriorating summer tour schedule. Right now, it seems trivial to mourn such relatively minor things. And yet, I must admit I’m sad to miss The Fiery Furnaces.
The Chicago-based brother-sister duo — who put out their debut album, Gallowbird’s Bark, in 2003 and went on hiatus in 2011 — announced in February that Pitchfork Fest would be their grand return to the indie-rock world. Other shows, while not announced, were assumed (at least by me) to be in the works. Perhaps those shows will still happen at that unforeseen date when gathering with a few hundred strangers inside a dark, tightly packed nightclub no longer is fodder for nightmares. But for now, their comeback seems like it has, at best, been put on hold, if not derailed completely. And that bums me out, because 2020 could really use a band this brilliantly bizarre and bizarrely brilliant.
I realize I’m probably throwing newbies in the deep end here, but if you don’t know this band, I highly recommend heading to blogs like NYC Taper and checking out their live recordings. To call The Fiery Furnaces an adventurous concert act doesn’t nearly do them the justice they deserve. In the late aughts, Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger radically rearranged their twisty-turny, overstuffed songs seemingly every other week with supercharged synth splashes, wonky guitar solos, and hyperactive drum fills. There’s no guarantee that bootleg recordings from the same album cycle will sound alike, even if they’re only separated by a matter of weeks.
If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find recordings from the mid-aughts, when they were touring behind their most famous album, the near-impenetrable “Grimm’s Fairy Tales meets Selling England By The Pound” pop-prog masterwork Blueberry Boat. At that time, they would stuff nearly 40 songs into a single 50-minute set, somehow melding the swiftness of the Minutemen’s Double Nickels On The Dime with the grandiosity of The Beatles’ Abbey Road.
I know that’s a lot of rock-geek influences piled on top of each other, but it’s otherwise difficult to explain this band. The songs were always catchy and, in their own way, pop. The Fridebergers’ impeccable taste in delectable vintage instrumental tones makes their music particularly luscious for vinyl hounds. (Here’s another rock-geek reference: They’re like The Carpenters if they attempted Tales From Topographic Oceans.) But their music and especially their lyrics were also incredibly, even stupidly, convoluted, and often tied to concepts that are easier to admire for their extreme perversity than as, you know, songs. At the height of their indie fame in 2005, for instance, they released a rock opera called Rehearsing My Choir voiced in large part by the Friedbergers’ elderly grandmother. It’s about listenable as that sounds. But, again, what an interesting idea!
Back in the aughts, The Fiery Furnaces seemed a little ahead of their time, though in retrospect, they surprisingly make a lot of more sense in the context of what was happening in indie rock. Their debut Gallowsbird’s Bark was released the same year as The White Stripes’ Elephant, and Matt and Eleanor’s superficial resemblance to Jack and Meg — they were two quirky brunettes from the midwest who were actual brother and sister, as opposed to Jack and Meg’s playacted version — got them pegged as garage-rock B-listers.
But Gallowsbird’s Bark — which was made in just three days, supposedly during Eleanor’s first visit to a recording studio — was actually much stranger and idiosyncratic than that classification suggests, taking the primitivism of The White Stripes in a less literal and more novel direction. Whereas The White Stripes would vamp on Son House for six minutes, The Fiery Furnaces would start with a jump blues riff, tie it to a nursery-rhyme narrative, and then segue to a twisted pastoral folk melody that might devolve into pure noise, with little logical rationale for the progression beyond primal familial intuition.
In interviews, the Friedbergers played off each other like a brother-sister comedy duo, with Matthew — a reformed punk rocker who once said that trying to get attention for your music was “kind of gross” — playing the Jack White-like Svengali and Eleanor deflating his pomposity with a well-placed quip or withering stare. Together, they described their music as an amalgam of “Bo Diddley, bad-sounding psychedelia, sentimental, weeping-in-your-beer ballads of the ’70s like Gilbert O’Sullivan’s ‘Alone Again Naturally,’ and the bad imitations of dub reggae on Sandinista by The Clash.” (They, like me, resorted to rock-geek-speak to describe The Fiery Furnaces.)
“We’d like to play for little kids and in old folks’ homes,” Matthew says in a 2003 Guardian interview, “and play in nasty bars as well. The music we want to play is more catholic — it’s a big enough mess that whether it’s the old folk or the kids, they could find something amusing. Hopefully, it is really silly, shiny music. I want it to have a broken toy sound. And also a piano singalong thing. I always like the idea of families entertaining themselves by singing, like every member of a family has a special song they sing when they get drunk enough, a Cole Porter song or whatever. That’s fun pop music to me.”
“Having a song to sing at family events when you get drunk,” Eleanor repeats, with a sarcasm that’s impossible not to discern, even on the page. “Yeah. My song is “Tomorrow.” From Annie.”
Matthew fully stepped forward as the band’s dominant creative force on their next album, Blueberry Boat. If Gallowsbird’s Bark is their Safe As Milk — a relatively conventional rock record — then Blueberry Boat is their Trout Mask Replica, a 76-minute left-field tour-de-force that demands that you either love or hate it. Heard now, it sounds like a key album in aughts-era indie’s transition from the garage-rock revivalism of the decade’s first half, and the proggy, childhood-obsessed art rock of the second half. Though Blueberry Boat also should be put in its own category.
The highest compliment I can give Blueberry Boat is that it seems even more ahead of its time 16 years after it came out. Revisiting it this week made a lot of conversations about contemporary indie rock seem quaint. You think Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters might be a little too abrasive or theatrical? Give a listen to “Chief Inspector Blancheflower.” You’re amazed at the eclecticism of The 1975’s recent singles? This runs through half-a-dozen different genres in one song. You found that Lana Del Rey’s last album had a lot of long, epic tracks? It’s not as big or dense as this.
That’s not a criticism of those recent indie hits. It just underscores how uniquely confrontational The Fiery Furnaces were. This was a band that deliberately drew a line in the sand between those who would get it and those who wouldn’t, and they made sure that the people in the former group was much smaller. It helped that at the time a band could actually be rewarded for such behavior with glowing press. Pitchfork gave Blueberry Boat a 9.6 in the summer of 2004, just 0.1 lower than the famous review of Funeral that helped to break Arcade Fire a few months later. “The exuberant overload of Blueberry Boat will thrill and transport you with the ineluctable force of a great children’s story, one whose execution matches its imagination,” the review promised.
Whenever I put on Blueberry Boat‘s wondrously batshit 10-minute opener, “Quay Cur,” I like to imagine the thousands of Pitchfork readers who gave this album a chance based on that review, and then guess at which point they angrily bailed. This never fails to make me chuckle. For more than two minutes, you hear a sluggish drum machine and jarring synth bleeps accented with occasional clanking piano chords. Then Eleanor’s arch, carefully enunciated vocal finally enters the picture. But just when you think you understand what this song is, it suddenly transitions to a sinister art-rock stomp. Then it turns into greasy off-kilter blues, and then psychedelic folk, and then back to sinister art-rock and then back to a wigged-out folkie meander.
I haven’t even mentioned the lyrics yet. The lyrics make even less sense than the music. “A looby, a lordant, a lagerhead, lozel / a lungio lathback made me a proposal” has to be my favorite line from “Quay Cur,” even though it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. (This one is a close second: “Dawding on the drizzy deck of my majesty’s sloop / If only the helmsman would turn from his whip staff / With my azimuth compass I’d go by the hectograph / Up to the whaling fleet in Gilbert sound.”)
What does any of this mean? I have no idea. Trying to “understand” The Fiery Furnaces will get you nowhere. Their songs are not meant to be deciphered. This music is meant to overwhelm the senses and replicate the childlike feeling of being simultaneously dazzled, confused, and terrified by the outside world, taking you back to a time when even a pop song could seem unfamiliar and unknowable. And it’s refreshing! Put on Blueberry Boat and any ingrained cynicism about having heard it all before rapidly burns away. Being overwhelmed and even confounded is sort of the point.
It seems strange to yearn for this sort of music when everyday life is already overwhelming and confounding. But listening to The Fiery Furnaces while cooped up inside is a reminder that the world really is a vast, mysterious place that contains endless shocks and surprises. Adventure awaits us all if we’re open to it. One day, hopefully, we’ll get to experience it again.