Fiery Furnaces: Symphony of Confusion
story by tim mcmahan
Lazy-i: June 21, 2006
The Fiery Furnaces
Thursday, June 22, 9 p.m.
13th & Martha
How does Eleanor
Friedberger, half of the brother-sister team called The Fiery
Furnaces, react when told that someone's been listening to their
new CD, Bitter Tea, all day? With an apology.
sorry," she says, with nothing to apologize for except creating
a ballistically quirky record that's impossible to ignore when
blasting through your speakers. Try reading, writing, carrying
on a conversation, doing almost anything with Bitter Tea's
constantly shifting, almost alarming songs bleating in your head.
You can't do it.
can do the dishes to it," Friedberger said while the band
loaded in to LA's Henry Fonda Theater for the night's performance.
"We've heard that a lot of people like to drive to it."
of their music's extreme distraction is "Whistle Rhapsody,"
a laidback, piano-driven rocker sung by brother Matthew Friedberger
in a voice reminiscent of Imagine-era John Lennon. The
song draws you in with its simple melody only to be cut in two
by a 15-second ear-piercing synth tone that sounds like a bomb
dropping from the sky. "The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry"
is one of a few songs that feature eerie backward tracking, as
if Satan himself were channeling the duo. But perhaps most bracing
is the sudden shift in rhythms and melodies and synthesizer tones
that fly out of nowhere on just about every track. Eleanor says
there's a method to this infectious madness.
all happens in Matt's head," she said. "He can justify all
of that stuff. The backward stuff is a beautiful sound, like using
reverb. It's a sound we grew up listening to on classic rock radio.
You heard backward stuff all the time. It's another technique, it's
not a gimmick."
It also helps
tell a story. Bitter Tea, released this year on Fat Possum
Records, is the first half of what was to be a two-part concept
album that framed the thoughts and life of the Freidberger's grandmother,
Olga Sarantos. The second half, Rehearsing My Choir, was
recorded with Sarantos and released in late 2005 on Rough Trade
Tea was the young girl's point of view, while Rehearsing My Choir
is an older woman's point of view," Eleanor said. "The
girl had overly dramatic, evil, menacing things going on in her
head, represented by the backward tracking."
The plan was
to release the two parts together as one double album. "The
record label thought it would be better as two separate products,"
Eleanor said. "They work well together and would have been
an impressive package to have been released together."
happen in 15 years, when the recordings' rights revert back to the
duo. "We'll be 50 by then," she said. And very likely
still performing together. Born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois,
the siblings didn't start making music together until they were
in their mid-20s and living in Brooklyn. Their debut, Gallowsbird's
Bark, was released in 2003 and became a favorite among critics
and NPR-minded music-lovers willing to take a chance on their playful,
theatrical and thoughtful style of music. The follow-up, 2004's
Blueberry Boat, proved just as challenging in its whimsical
The backward stuff is a beautiful sound, like using reverb.
It's a sound we grew up listening to on classic rock radio."
can scream at each other and it's forgotten an hour later."
Matthew writes all the songs, Eleanor helps with the lyrics. "The
music is the result of all different methods," she said of
the songwriting. "I'll have a couple chords and a melody and
than Matt will add lots of overdubs and rearrange stuff, or Matt
might have a whole song written and then ask me to re-sing it at
relationship helps make it work, Eleanor said, adding that they're
siblings first and band members second. "We get along really
well, and if anything it helps being siblings because we're quick
to forgive and let things slide off our backs," she said. "If
two guys are in a band and say 'F*** you, this is terrible' they
get hurt. That's why bands break up; they don't know how to argue
and make up. We can scream at each other and it's forgotten an hour
by the time they reach the stage. For their live show, Eleanor says
the band makes no effort to recreate what's heard on the record.
In fact, for this tour, Matthew left the synthesizer at home in
favor of wielding a guitar. The band also features drummer Bob D'Amico
and bass player Jason Loewenstein -- yes that Jason Loewenstein,
the one from Sebadoh. "I wasn't a Sebadoh fan when I met him,"
Eleanor said. "I was always a Dinosaur Jr. fan and didn't think
about anything else. I never saw Sebadoh perform, but some people
at shows are, like, 'Jason!'"
Why no keyboards?
"We have to compete with people drinking beer and talking,"
she said. "I don't like bands to tell people to sit down and
be quiet. We prefer to be loud and smash things over their heads.
You can expect a loud, aggressive show that's completely different
than the record.
never played in Omaha before, so it'll be new for everyone,"
Eleanor said, adding that her only Omaha experience was coming to
town for a softball tournament as a member of the Oak Park Windmills
at age 12 or 13. "We came in third."
Published in The Omaha Reader June 21, 2006.
Copyright © 2006 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.