The Fiery FurnacesWidow City
Released 2007 on Thrill Jockey
Reviewed by flashbackcaruso, 13/02/2011ce
If this all sounds like art for art's sake, then fear not. Behind the playfulness and seeming perversity these siblings are highly gifted in the musical department and can knock off classic pop songs with the greatest of ease. (In fact, I first discovered them through the insanely catchy 'Tropical Iceland' which, despite its off-the-wall production, actually led me to assume they were a 'twee-core' band, rather than the more experimental proposition I discovered when I finally explored further). And the album under review here, while packed full of the usual over-abundance of musical themes and cryptic lyrics, is also the one that is most likely to grab you by the balls. Perhaps as a reaction to previous album 'Bitter Tea', which often sounded like The Mikado re-interpreted by Devo, 'Widow City' really rocks, and in a way you've possible never quite heard before. Try to imagine Led Zeppelin after six months being drilled by Captain Beefheart and then having Robert Plant replaced by an American school mistress. And that's not all. Despite the particular dexterity he displays here on the guitar, Matthew Friedberger's credit on the cover merely reads ‘Chamberlin M1, Mellotron 400, etc.’ That's right, prog fans, the other distinctive sound on this LP is that greatest of all keyboards, the Mellotron, and its less-celebrated precursor, the Chamberlin. But the Friedbergers almost shoot themselves in the foot straight off with an opening track which seems to display the shortcomings of their approach. 'The Philadelphia Grand Jury' is a good song, but Matt seems to have been undecided on his favourite arrangement for it, and so has edited together bits of various different takes. And so it opens with a funky staccato sequence, which cuts suddenly to a Brian Eno-esque 'Another Green World' arrangement, before Eleanor's vocal ushers in a more straight-forward take. This is all very effective, but too much of the 7 plus minutes is padded out with various instrumental variations on the main theme, and the silly coda is one patience-tester too many. But all is rectified with the following trio of brisk pop songs, which run into each other to form an 8-minute suite. 'Duplexes Of The Dead' is a superb psych-rocker, with big beats and a tumbling backwards Mellotron chorus marking the first of several nods to 'Kashmir'. An unofficial single, thanks to its eerie promo clip which is worth looking for on YouTube. Almost without warning it jumps to 'Automatic Husband', a highly successful attempt to cram several contrasting styles into just over 2 minutes. The cracks between the theatrical spoken word sections and the hard rock thrash-outs are papered over by the sweep of a harp, a deliciously incongruous ingredient which fits just nicely. The last part of this triple bill is another great pop moment with a 'Kashmir' interlude, 'Ex-Guru', which was quickly covered by label mate David Byrne. 'Clear Signal From Cairo' is the first of two genius tracks that showcase the band's ability to create sustained moments of angular insanity which manage to be at once maddening and hugely enjoyable. After a gloriously dumb and brutal two-note opening riff, the broken record hook of 'It's a clear, it's a clear, it's a clear, it's a clear, clear signal from Cairo' tests the tolerance of the listener in a way that few other bands would dare, but this tolerance is rewarded with long stretches of frenzied rocking-out, akin to The Magic Band playing 'Heart Of The Sunrise'. There had been no previous evidence that the Furnaces could rock quite this hard, and with the help of the sharpest of editing they keep this one going for more than 6 minutes. 'My Egyptian Grammar' is a sweeter, more melodic song, mixing together this album's 'Ex-Guru' with the previous album's loveliest moment 'Benton Harbor Blues', and requiring Eleanor to deliver some particularly tongue-twisting lyrics ('There are 17 sections of cymbals in the orchestra of the oversold, it said'). Two quirky quickies come next, both effortlessly catchy and sporting bizarre arrangements. 'The Old Hag Is Sleeping' features samples of cattle and laughter, bits of guitar echoing one chord at a time across the stereo spectrum and a weird beat that only just seems to fit. It concludes with a giggling guitar solo and a ray gun. 'Japanese Slippers' seems to be built upon the beat of OMD's 'Sailing On The Seven Seas', but adds a chugging train sound effect, a wayward wah-wah guitar and a toy piano. Eleanor spits out the lyrics with gusto and the chorus is a delightful little melody on the Mellotron (or Chamberlin). 'Navy Nurse' is another long song based around a 70s rock riff and built up from multiple parts, including a refrain of 'If there's anything I've had enough of it's today', and a neat cyclical chant of 'She's alert, she's open-minded, she's involved'. Not easy to get to grips with on the first listen, but after several plays it gels perfectly. 'Uncle Charlie' by comparison is short and to-the-point, but still manages to kick off with a 20 second drum solo, meaning everything else has to be played at a super-frenzied pace to squeeze it all in, like Cardiacs at their most cartoonish, but with some of the 'Trout Mask Replica' flavour hinted at in 'Clear Signal From Cairo' which itself gets a thinly disguised reprise. 'Right By Conquest' is similar in mood but slower in pace, with big prog chords replacing the crazed riffs. 'Restorative Beer' lives up to its title by being a simpler Mellotron-flavoured tune, a battery-recharging moment before the final big push, even if the lyrics remain as demanding as ever ('Talked on my 25 foot phone extension chord about Needlepoint therapy blues'). But can anyone ever be totally prepared for the monster riff-a-thon that is 'Wicker Whatnots', easily one of my top 3 Fiery Furnaces tracks. It's like Led Zeppelin thrown into a cement mixer, with drumming that keeps threatening to break loose, skittering off in an almost free jazz style, running backwards (via tape reversal as well as physical performance), but always somehow being reigned back in, just in time for the next crashing guitar chord. And then there is that naggingly annoying yet strangely satisfying descending guitar riff, which succeeds in having its itch and scratching it. Art rock of the most physical kind; brutal and weirdly danceable, it is a work of deranged genius, which even finds time to break off for a moment to ponder the question 'How do you arrange a room around a baby grand piano?' After this the remaining songs on the album can't help but have a comparatively perfunctiory air. 'Cabaret of the Seven Devils' passes by almost un-noticed, 'Pricked In The Heart' dispenses with melody almost entirely, the words spat out at a ridiculous rate as if aware that the album is about to finish before everything can be said, and finally the tuneful title track which, after all the preceeding muso displays, is deliberately badly performed, mischievously ending this high achieving LP on a bathetic note.
The Fiery Furnaces are a relatively overlooked band. Despite their prolific output on fashionable labels such as Rough Trade and Thrill Jockey, they somehow have yet to be given more than marginal coverage in the music press. 'Widow City' is a great way to discover them.