March 27, 2004

Fiery Furnaces at Northsix, 03/26/2004

Gallowsbird's Bark was my third favorite record of last year and the Fiery Furnaces themselves intrigue me more than just about any other band out there right now. If only spiritually, Eleanor and Matt Friedberger are the Becker and Fagen of their day. "Literate," yeah, perfectionist, fine, but they also crackle with a cryptic synchronicity that excludes the rest of the world from ever really knowing their thought processes or motivations.

You wanna crack them open because what's inside has gotta be pretty interesting, this brother and sister whose shy bedroom geekiness often careens into controlled crank-mania and near-autistic strings of information, strings of words, strings of notes, free associations. But it's not cold and distant, it's warm and funny and a little vulnerable too, guardedly emotional.

Seeing them live drives all this home. There's a keyboardist/bass player and a drummer too, and they're doing very well holding down the insanely difficult parts they've had to learn for the stage show (95 percent of the live arrangements are different from what's on record), and it reminds me of the Magic Band guys being forced under great duress to learn whatever crazy shit Beefheart threw at them, or the orchestra backing Laura Nyro on the Eli/Tendaberry dates, working overtime overdubbing parts that would match Nyro's rhythmically erratic voice-and-piano takes. Except it's not one spastic genius -- it's two, two siblings with a bizarre telepathy that I can detect when I watch them nail all their cues, their entrances, endings, changes, without even looking at each other more than a couple of times in the whole set. As good as the other musicians were last night (compared to reports of shows where they seemed lost and out of their depth), it was all about keeping up with the Friedbergers.

The set was a trial run for a lot of new songs (from their forthcoming Blueberry Boat, the "alienating second album" where they add some Soft Machine to their Suicide, throw some languid space-prog on that scatty E Street jingle-jangle, and float their Hot Wheels canoe farther east on the world atlas). Seeing how little equipment there actually is on stage (basically the bare bones of what any touring band carries around, give or take a Rhodes piano), it makes sense that the Fiery Furnaces' live arrangements are so different; they go at the material all minimal and full-throttle and it's baffling and hard to follow sometimes (let's say Eleanor is singing with her only backup being Matt barfing out relentless repetitive wah-drunk patterns on his Telecaster; as an art-punk experiment it's fun but there were some words on Gallowsbird's Bark that really benefitted from having a chord supporting them, giving them the necessary phrasing, gravity, etc, and this is one of the most cool things songwriting does and when it's not there I kinda miss it).

But the new songs came off wonderfully. I love their voices, and I love their voices on these songs. They enunciate so you can hear what they're singing, but they don't get too cutesy about it, like "here's the part where you're supposed to find all this terribly poignant/riotously funny," the way some jazz singers do. The lyrics could ostensibly speak for themselves, but there's so much scrappy port-city character in Eleanor and Matt's singing that it's delightful to hear those voices and those words in tandem. And the pacing of the show didn't restrict this at all. In a way, it tested it. It's there, all right.

(P.S. A special shout-out to o. nate and Matthew, who were great company at the show. They wrote it up on their blogs as well; do have a look.)