What people like to do with the Fiery Furnaces is compare them to the White Stripes. They're both brother and sister pairs! they say, which is a good point except that the White Stripes made that up, and the Fiery Furnaces—Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger—are actually the real deal.
Or: They both make heavily blues-influenced music! This was fairly accurate, at least until Blueberry Boat, the Furnaces', um, second album. (And to be fair, the Stripes are branching out considerably as well on their latest album Get Behind Me Satan.)
Also, I suppose it bears mentioning that the White Stripes are from Detroit, whereas the Furnaces are from Chicago. I'm just saying. It's not like they really have all that much in common. And yet, for example: Oh My Rockness starts off its Fiery Furnaces bio by referring to them as "the other male/female garage duo.1" Oh right, the other thing they have in common is apparently a garage.
In any case, my bold claim is that the White Stripes are the ones who should be the "other" male/female garage duo. This is not to deprecate the fine music of the Stripes, just to say that the Fiery Furnaces make some of the most consistently exciting music I've heard in years.
As of this writing, the Furnaces have five albums to their name: three released (Gallowsbird's Bark, Blueberry Boat, and EP), one scheduled for release on October 25, 2005 (Rehearsing My Choir), and another (Bitter Tea) coming down the pipes somewhere in early 2006. Bear with me while I wax rhapsodic for a very long time.
Gallowsbird's Bark is the first and probably the most conventional of the Fiery Furnaces' releases to date. It's a sprightly mix of sixteen often very bluesy tunes, propelled forward by a relentless energy that announces itself boldly in the very first track. The lyrics—perhaps the most consistent aspect of the music of the Fiery Furnaces—are whimsical, elliptical and playful, occasionally flitting off to a foreign land for sightseeing or an adventure of some kind. The songs mostly come in under the four minute mark and are fairly simple, although "Inca Rag/Name Game" sounds, as its title would indicate, like two songs mashed into one. The album concludes with a trio of songs which flow, seamlessly medley-like, one into the other. These small changes to the established song structures, along with the aforementioned lyrical penchant for travel, would become the bedrock for...
Blueberry Boat, which might be one of the biggest left turns ever taken by a band so early in its career. Whereas Gallowsbird was fairly succinct and poppish, Blueberry Boat is an epic, comprising 13 songs totaling 76 minutes. Just as Gallowsbird gave you an idea of what you were in for right from the outset, Blueberry Boat has two minutes of gritty synth beats and crazy noises in its 10-minute-long first song before Eleanor even starts singing. Gone is the brevity of Gallowsbird, to be replaced by seven-minute-long songs about frantic Middle East cell phone salespeople, whirlwind searches for lost pets, hyperactive detective stories, and other journeys through time and space. There are so many stories and so much music in Blueberry Boat that I suggest you visit its node to get the whole story. But come right back here, because just when you start to think that Blueberry Boat represented the Fiery Furnaces' purchase of a one-way ticket to self-indulgent la-la land, you find out that they followed it up with...
EP, a modestly-titled 10-song palate cleanser which, in spite of being far more accessible to the casual listener than Blueberry Boat, still has more to recommend it than many "full-length" albums by other, less ambitious bands. Some of the songs here sound like hold-overs from Blueberry Boat. Others are simple, pristine 3-minute perfect pop gems, such as the delightful three-song medley that starts EP off and the raucous re-working of one of the singles from Gallowsbird's Bark. There's also a couple of songs that showcase Matthew Friedberger's love of wordplay and alliteration to such an extent that we wind up with lines like "Prop prince prize proof prize-proof, pry pray." Impenetrable? Perhaps, but then, you do need to prepare yourself for...
Rehearsing My Choir, referred to as "the grandma album" by those who were in the know about its existence before they were in the know about its title, because it features the vocal stylings of Matt and Eleanor's grandmother Olga Sarantos. Mrs. Sarantos's voice is one of a kind, and the music is simultaneously a return to Blueberry Boat-style mayhem and an attempt to cut back on the overdubs and produce a more stripped-down sound. The lyrics, while they retain the whimsy and frivolity of earlier albums, also seem to have a more definite storytelling-related goal: Rehearsing My Choir is as much musical theater as rock record.
And who knows what the future may hold in the form of Bitter Tea: Eleanor says, "It's a lot poppier than the stuff we've done before. It sounds more Devo-ish. It kind of has like a '60s girl-group kind of feeling in the lyrics. It's great, I love it."2 And Matt says it's supposed to "appeal to the Kiss crowd, those who listen to Bloc Party, or whatever the kids are listening to these days."3 Just to mix things up a little, another quote from the band refers to it as "sissy psychadelic satanism."4 Oh, man. Are you excited? I'm excited.
The Fiery Furnaces have as interesting a dynamic as you would expect from a brother-sister band. The official bio is vastly entertaining and help to illustrate the playful rivalry between the two:
Eleanor was constantly ridiculed in the crudest and least interesting manner by her brother Matthew. He, for his part, had to suffer such things as her coming in the room and various other affronts: for instance, talking, or watching the TV show she wanted or putting on a record she might like to hear.
So Eleanor had to hide her likes and dislikes until he left. It was a beautiful day. She stood at a second-floor window, watching as Dad drove Matt off, and roughly, excitedly, triumphantly put "Houses of The Holy" into the CD player, turning up the volume on what used to be her brother's stereo.
Matthew had only liked The Who. He had Who records and videotapes, and as a youth, down in the basement, he tried to make Who noises. But he failed miserably and, with black jealousy, guarded the scene of his humiliation and insufficiency, that basement, where he kept the tape recorder. In fact, Eleanor was hit over the head, stabbed in the knee and smashed on the foot for coming down in the basement. But that didn't make his songs any better.
Years later, when Matthew—his pride gone, his spirit, such as it was, crushed—encouraged Eleanor to come down in the basement to make their first Fiery Furnaces music together. Maybe he should have hit and stabbed and smashed her. But he just swore. Things had changed.5
There can be no denying Matt's appreciation for The Who; his favorite album is The Who Sell Out and he has often claimed that Blueberry Boat consists largely of imitations of "Rael" and "A Quick One (While He's Away)." And to back up the hyperbolic-sounding claims in the official bio, he said in an interview with the Guardian: "I'd tell Eleanor to turn her records off. Especially Led Zeppelin. I wouldn't have that. I'd allow her to listen to the Who, of course, because of their pedigree and importance."4
One gets the feeling that he's being ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek, but still.
Matt does sometimes give the impression of being the more antisocial and abrasive of the two Furnaces, given such stories as these and his tendency to shout expletives at sound board people when they screw up at concerts. But he seems personable enough in interviews and is happy to chat with fans after shows, and he gladly signed a CD for me when I saw him in Minneapolis.
Another fan asked him what he likes to read, and he said, "History books, mostly." From the crazy and intricately detailed World War I narrative "1917" on Blueberry Boat to virtually all of Rehearsing My Choir, Matt's love of history regularly shows up in his influence on the lyrics, the writing of which he (generously, given his history) splits half and half with Eleanor. Dissecting the historical references has become a pastime of the more devoted Furnaces fans.
Eleanor, on the other hand, seems slightly less intense than Matt, and in spite of being the lead singer and having a better stage presence, generally keeps a lower profile (although not as low as oh, say, Meg White). She was reluctant about joining the band at first but now seems to share at least some of Matt's enthusiasm:
For the longest time, I was completely embarrassed. I didn't want to be in a loud rock band as a young woman. I didn't like any women singers. I identified with men. I didn't know how to go about it. Then I just decided, whatever comes out, comes out. I've got this new thing of just trying to look at people and see how they react.6
Eleanor now seems to be adjusting well to the life of (indie) fame: she's been dating Alex Kapranos, the lead singer of Franz Ferdinand, for two years, and he even wrote a song about her called "Eleanor, Put Your Boots Back On." New York Magazine named her "Most Beautiful Garage Rocker" in its 2005 "Most Beautiful New Yorkers" list.7 And Miu Miu has apparently nabbed her for its fall 2005 ad campaign.8
But hey, that's superficial crap. Interviews reveal that Eleanor has a wry sense of humor just like her older brother, and while it may be obvious that she hasn't had much in the way of vocal training, her voice is perfectly suited to the Furnaces' music. And let's not forget that she has a hand in the songwriting: songs like "I'm Gonna Run," which was mostly her work, reveal how she can be very stream-of-consciousness and still anchor Matt's sometimes impossibly abstruse meanderings.
As a team, Eleanor and Matt Friedberger are a force to be reckoned with. On stage, they deliver a very different performance than you might expect after hearing one of their albums, tossing out the densely layered synths and with them virtually any trace of subtlety, and going for the throat. The result is as intense as their band name (which references the Book of Daniel and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang9) implies. Matt explains the aesthetic choice thusly:
You know, you're playing in front of people and they're drinking. What are you going to do? You have to get their attention. So it's easier to be aggressive live than to try to be musical. I think that's what you're meant to do. You make a record and there's a lot of silly noises and in the singing you pretend you're in a church choir. And live you play "Summertime Blues". Live, we play rock. Hopefully it's different and it's a chance to get a different crack at a song.10
Earlier in their career, the band was known to—in Eleanor's pre-show words—"just play a bunch of songs without stopping," chopping songs up into individual verses, mixing them up, and jamming them together medley-style, playing for 45 frenzied and mind-boggling minutes without ever taking a break. Lately, their approach is more laid-back and they do actually play entire songs, although still in the straight-up rocking style that fans have come to expect. When I saw them, they also made time to play Rehearsing My Choir—as yet unreleased—in its entirety, with Matt singing and narrating in his grandmother's place.
In the studio, on the other hand, the Furnaces just produce some of the most exuberant, enjoyable music of any band around. It's hectic and silly and sometimes it's damned hard to get used to, but more than anything else it's meant to be fun, and it is. The remarkable storytelling, the trading of vocal duties between various family members, and the occasional genuinely touching moments—all are subordinate to the ultimate goal of making music that is a grand old time.
And all this, amazingly enough, has come to pass in the two years since Gallowsbird's Bark was released in the fall of 2003. Matt says of the prolificacy of the band: "Who doesn't want to write songs? It's fun. I'd like to get on a normal schedule of releasing albums … every four months."11
At this point it should be crystal clear that anyone who can learn to love the Fiery Furnaces has a lot to look forward to.
- "The Fiery Furnaces." Oh My Rockness.
- Petitti, Michael. "The Fiery Furnaces heat up Solar Culture." The Arizona Daily Wildcat. 22 Sep 05.
- Rhodes-Knowlton, Jessica. "Fiery Furnaces, Hotter and Hotter." Flagpole Magazine.
- Clarke, Mia Lily. "Heavy Metal Mama." The Guardian. 18 Oct 05.
- The Fiery Furnaces official biography. Rough Trade Records.
- Petridis, Alexis. "'He Tormented Me for Years.'" The Guardian. 10 Nov 2003.
- "The Most Beautiful New Yorkers - 2005 List." New York Magazine.
- "Eleanor Friedberger, Fashion Model."
- Male, Andrew. "On The Verge." The Observer Magazine. 25 Jan 2004.
- Kelly, Jennifer. "The Fiery Furnaces." Splendid E-zine.
- Perez, Rodrigo. "Fiery Furnaces Make LP With Grandma - And Get Lauded in Song by Franz Ferdinand?" 01 Aug 2005.
Also Worth Checking Out
- Blueberry Boat: A Fiery Furnaces Fansite,
- Another Fiery Furnaces Fansite,
- Sanneh, Kelefa. "Fiery Furnaces: A Post-punk Family Affair." Houston Chronicle. 17 Oct 2005.
- Carrera, Juan. "Artist Profile: The Fiery Furnaces." Icelandairwaves.
- Three glowing reviews and an interview at Pitchforkmedia.com; the reviews can be found from the main page by searching the album name, the interview is at
- And my Blueberry Boat node here on E2.