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Published: 2004/10/04
by Jesse Jarnow

The Fiery Furnaces, Bowery Ballroom, NYC- 9/24

NYC ROLL-TOP: Crystal Clear

At the Fiery Furnaces hyped-up, sold-out show on Friday night at the Bowery Ballroom, the crowd of indie hipsters learned something that jamband dorks (and especially Disco Biscuits freaks) have known for a long time: it's fun to be complicated and obscure. On Blueberry Boat, their recent maybe-it’s-a-concept-album, the Furnaces’ songs (like the 10-minute opening "Quay Cur") aren’t so much through-composed numbers as rhythmically bound collections of extremely catchy fragments. Live, the band pulled out move #1 from the Bisco playbook: splice up and rearrange.

The Furnaces barely stopped playing during their just-under-an-hour set. The song-modules – a bit from one song, a bit from another – barreled into one another without missing beats, a continuous flow of cartoonish art-punk that melded playful hippie segues with the urgent ONETWOTHREEFOUR! pacing of The Ramones. Even if you were intimately familiar with Blueberry Boat (which I’m not… yet) and their previous album, last year’s Gallowsbird’s Bark, it could be overwhelming. And, if you weren’t intimately familiar, well, you were just fucked, because the Furnaces’ set was a whirling, dizzying affair. But that’s a good thing either way.

An annotated excerpt from the setlist, courtesy of the Furnaceheads over at the Fluxblog, reads as such: "Wolf Notes (first half of song, rock version) / Leaky Crystal (alternating lines from Leaky Tunnel and Crystal Clear) / Worry Worry (a verse and chorus) / Blueberry Boat (two verses) / Worry Worry (verse and chorus) / Hurry Worry (2nd half of Smelling Cigarettes) / Smelling Cigarettes (first half) / My Dog Was Lost But Now He’s Found / Wolf Notes (reprise of first half) / Two Fat Feet (verse and chorus) / Straight Street (a few verses and chorus) / Two Fat Feet (verse and chorus)..."

And that was just the first 10 minutes or so. No shit.

The Furnaces are brother and sister (yes, really) Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger (live, accompanied by, um, two Generic Indie Dudes). Blueberry Boat is a hard-to-place symphony marked mainly by brightly chirping (and very contemporary-sounding) keyboards and Matthew and Eleanor’s occasionally dueling sing-song melodies. The lyrics, which include narratives about pirates and lost dogs, are frequently punctuated by tongue-pleasing surrealities ("I’ll jump in the undertow penguin paddle and drown in my wedding gown"). If you’re the kinda person inclined to find such a comparison useful: they’re kinda like early Phish. If you’re the kinda person inclined to be offended by such a comparison: slag off and listen to Junta, asshole. (Then you can be offended.)

Live, Eleanor fronts while Matthews plays guitar and keyboards. Generic Indie Dude #1 plays keyboards and bass. Generic Indie Dude #2 plays drums. The attention is obviously on Eleanor, who has a brassily distinct voice, and could potentially – with a few more tics – be a classically fantastic frontwoman. Should the band's popularity continue to grow, this could be a huge asset, especially as they figure out how to musically deal with the fact that, by the end of their set, much of it starts to sound the same. Blueberry Boat clocks in at nearly 80 minutes, and they do a right decent job of keeping it interesting throughout. On stage, however, the band is working with a far smaller palette, and there’s no tricking the ear. Once the gimmick factor wears off, the live band will eventually need to tackle this problem. (Personally, I’d love to see the Polyphonic Spree orchestrate live versions of the Furnaces’ tunes in rotating small ensembles.) On first sight (and hopefully second, when they open for Wilco at Radio City Music Hall next week), though, the Furnaces remain utterly compelling.

For that matter, though, the Spree and the Furnaces have a fair bit in common. Like the white-clad Texans, the Fiery Furnaces bring a frequently-missing sense of fun to indie rock — a quality sorely missing from the Mars Volta, the last group to try fusing prog acrobatics with indie attitude. The Fiery Furnaces' songs (as my roommate pointed out) aren't hugely challenging from a compositional point of view, nor is their point to show off virtuosity (in fact, despite its careful arrangement, it gains much from its punk edges). Nonetheless, the effect is the same as prog: to overwhelm. It's probably a safe bet to say that most Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Phish, etc., fans aren't consciously familiar with the boundaries of harmony and rhythm, and it's certainly not the reason they listen to those bands. Nah, they listen to those bands to be overwhelmed (and also to be impressed by their heroes’ we’ve-got-armadillos-in-our-brain-pan intellects). The Fiery Furnaces elevate indie’s snotty pomp to elegantly conceptual heights. Let’s watch them dance.

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