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Fiery Furnaces

+ {Matthew Friedberger} + {Eleanor Friedberger}

Noughties sensations The WHITE STRIPES had proved that male/female alt-rock-type duos could do the necessary work, a slightly larger band could cope with, and in the well-named Brooklyn-based brother and sister team of Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger (originally from Oak Park, Illinois), The FIERY FURNACES were in a position to challenge their nu-blues peers. Closer to The VELVET UNDERGROUND, PATTI SMITH, PJ HARVEY and a raft of garage-rock acts, than Jack and Meg, the majority of the vocal chores were down to guitarist Eleanor, while (ex-Corndolly) Matthew performed on everything else but drums; they filled-out to a trio/quartet for live gigs. While critics at first fawned and drooled over their experimental, avant-pop, it was clear that a big white stripy albatross was around their neck from the get-go. Several albums into a prolific career, although in a hiatus since 2011, a solo ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER might yet rise to the fore – she (and Matthew) certainly deserve global recognition.
Having been influenced by their grandmother Olga Sarantos, plus their multi-musician-type mother and prevailing trips around Europe, Eleanor and her songwriting brother, Matthew, took to the stage in 2000. From playing small venues such as Enid’s to supporting the likes of SLEATER-KINNEY, SPOON, et al, The FIERY FURNACES stoked their mantle of inspiration when distributing a demo tape around the city; Rough Trade Records were duly impressed and almost immediately offered the duo a contract.
Premiered by the single `Crystal Clear’, debut set GALLOWSBIRD’S BARK (2003) {*8} stirred up a melting pot of rambling, broadside blues-folk comparisons, but essentially FF’s sound was fresh and er… fun, despite the black humour in some of their quirky dirges. Best of all was the cool and cocky `Two Fat Feet’ (complete with rawk guitar licks), the technoid `Don’t Dance Her Down’, the sweet PASTELS-esque `Tropical Ice-land’ and the “Bron-Y-Aur” romp of `We Got Back The Plague’.
Subsequently augmented live by Andy Knowles (drums) and Toshi Yano (bass) – mainly as support to FRANZ FERDINAND, The SHINS, TED LEO, et al – and despite the VU anti-pop challenge to “the evil that men do” on Eleanor’s trad-sourced ode to abusive marital relationships on `Single Again’, sophomore set BLUEBERRY BOAT (2004) {*7} was at times hard work, splitting the opinions of critics; the NME gave it 1/10 and Rolling Stone 2/5, while Pitchfork rated it 9.6/10. A complex, concept album dealing with Spanish pirates, white slavery kidnapping, love triangles and er… blueberries, what probably alienated some modern musos was the corny, prog-length opener, `Quay Cur’, clocking in at an exhausting 10 minutes; one or two more than the title track, the noodling `Chief Inspector Blancheflower’, the mind-bending `Mason City’ and the riveting `Chris Michaels’. Coming out only ten months from their promising first “baby”, this marmite-effect double-set was worth sticking with for several night-time spins.
If fans had missed out buying their shorter and sharper singles, subsequent SMITHS-ish odds ’n’ sods compilation EP (2005) {*6} played to the alt-pop sensibilities of their head-scratching hardcore fanbase. Clocking in at just over 40 minutes, it was hardly an “EP”, and with tracks only really a year or so old, including minor Brit hits, `Single Again’ and `Tropical Iceland’, Matthew afforded himself a few lead larynx-twisters via `Sing For Me’ and the glam `Sweet Spots’.
Had any other band ever let their granny come on board on a recording? One can’t think of one! Well, that was the sub-position of follow-up album, REHEARSING MY CHOIR (2005) {*6}, a “silent-movie-type rock opera” that saw Eleanor and their narrative Greek-American grand-mama go through a family photo-album of songs that represented their playful relationship. While it was sure hard to criticise another brave attempt by the Furnaces to experiment on the likes of `A Candymaker’s Knife In My Handbag’, `The Wayward Granddaughter’ (about an entirely different grandma!) and the LAURIE ANDERSON-esque `The Garfield El’, fickle fans failed to see its subtext; SEBADOH geezer Jason Loewenstein filled in as third-man live auxiliary.
2006’s one-off for Fat Possum Records: the internet-leaked BITTER TEA (2006) {*6} was another to stretch the patience of some of their more discerning disciples. Nauseating backwards vocal cues attaining to years of rewinding one imagines (try doing these on stage!), and plinky-plunk pianos overbearing Matthew’s in-yer-ear production values, Eleanor might’ve been forgiven had she bailed there and then. Then again, there was saviours by way of the catchy `Waiting To Know You’, `Oh Sweet Woods’ and the post-“White Album”-beaten `Police Sweater Blood Vow’.
These ambitious and carefree albums probably gave heart to a solo MATTHEW FRIEDBERGER, who took his chance while Eleanor was out of town to unleash his own double-CD-set, WINTER WOMEN / HOLY GHOST LANGUAGE SCHOOL (2006) {*6}. Split into a pop disc and an experimental one, the BRIAN WILSON or Robert Pollard (GUIDED BY VOICES), certainly ran through his psyche of pop. Without his sister (who might’ve been better suited to singing `Under The Hood At The Paradise Garage’ and `Big Bill Crib And His Ladies Of The Desert’), the yin-yang 21st century schizoid antics of Matt and his raft of instruments behind him, travelled around the globe, SUFJAN STEVENS-style, on several sonic-synthetic chapters.
Preferring the esteemed American indie institution, Thrill Jockey Records (run by Bettina Richards), The FIERY FURNACES delivered yet another concept-type set in WIDOW CITY (2007) {*7}. Sympathising with the holy Vrindavan women of northern India, who fast in temples and beg on the streets for a pittance to feed themselves, El and Matt (and newbie Robert D’Amico) could certainly pick out worthy topics and worldly situations and, in songs such as `Wicker Whatnots’, `Japanese Slippers’, the kooky `The Old Hag Is Sleeping’, `Ex-Guru’ (soon-to-be covered by DAVID BYRNE) and the raucous `Clear Signal From Cairo’, the duo had realised their strengths. Registering concert highs from as far back as October 2005 and running up to April ’08, collaged retrospective double-set REMEMBER (2008) {*8}, showed just how important and inventive the band had been up to this transitional point.
2009’s I’M GOING AWAY {*7} was relatively straightforward, clinging on to cerebral and wistful melodies, none more so poignant than in the opening trad-sourced title track and the heart-wrenching `Drive To Dallas’. Ditto `The End Is Near’ and the scatty upbeat `Charmaine Champagne’ (THIN LIZZY-meets-FRANZ FERDINAND, anyone?), while the simplicity and drama of `Even In The Rain’ and `Cups & Punches’, were akin to something of the 70s. If one wanted a “Friedbergers cover the Friedbergers” set that represented another side of the chameleonic duo, then the subsequent swansong set, TAKE ME ROUND AGAIN (2009) {*6} was one such record; the siblings took a break from each other from 2011.
While MATTHEW FRIEDBERGER was at his most prolific on a 2011 series of bi-monthly sets (from “Napoleonette” to “Death-In-Life” and beyond), glued together for a diluted compilation, THE DIABOLICAL PRINCIPLE (2012) {*6} and a culminant 8xCD-box, SOLOS {*7}, Matt also offered up an inspiring CD of kaleidoscopic tunes in his umpteenth concept delivery, MATRICIDAL SONS OF BITCHES (2012) {*6}. An album that in many ways shape-shifted from one glorious exotica movement or seedy sequence to another, maybe the man was ahead of his time; from collective titles-within-titles (`The Ladies-In-Waiting’ probably the most enterprising), one awaits where his self-indulgent genius will take him.
On the either side of the pop/rock spectrum, the sultry ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER spun out her inaugural Merge Records-endorsed set, LAST SUMMER (2011) {*8}. Almost tying in 70s singer-songwriter kudos with The STROKES (example opener, `My Mistakes’), the record seemed a million cosmic miles from the FF’s sprawling and shambolic bends and twists, and in tracks, `Inn Of The Seventh Ray’, `Glitter Gold Year’ (LOU REED meets SUPERTRAMP) and The PRIMITIVES-esque `I Won’t Fall Apart On You Tonight’, a new ladette of rock had come-of-age.
A warm vocal character that was decidedly reminiscent of KIKI DEE, KATRINA Leskanich (& THE WAVES) or Toni Tennille (yes, CAPTAIN & TENNILLE), Eleanor’s PERSONAL RECORD (2013) {*8} was another meeting of pop and indie. Augmented by songsmith Wesley Stace (and a session band), the carefree and comforting collection was highlighted by the twee-pop of `When I Knew’, the DEBBIE HARRY-esque `I’ll Never Be Happy Again’, the “Maneater”-esque `She’s A Mirror’ and the hook-line, Britpop-ish `Staring At The Sun’. Room for improvement – but not that much.
Subsequently relocating to upstate New York, where Eleanor and her band Icewater laid down tracks for her third album, NEW VIEW (2016) {*6}, her gamble was to skilfully sculpt singer/songwriter items echoing a folk-y Laurel Canyon motif. Freewheeling and carefree, rather than incorporating a brash and exuberant rock style occupied by COURTNEY BARNETT and CATE LE BON, there was still an airy freshness on best bits, `He Didn’t Mention His Mother’, `Cathy With The Curly Hair’, `Never Is A Long Time’ and `Open Season’.
© MC Strong/MCS Dec2013-Jan2016

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