I think Brooklyn duo The Fiery Furnaces was the first ‘indie’ band I saw live, back in 2007. The Fiery Furnaces is the moniker of brother and sister duo Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger. If you ask me, Matthew Friedberger is one of the most talented songwriters of our time; brother Friedberger writes all of the Furnaces’ music, records most of the instruments and writes the lyrics, which are in turn sung mostly by his sister. Whether it be the sprawling 10 minute, mind melting tracks found on 2004’s Blueberry Boat or the concise, complex pop of 2009’s I’m Going Away, Friedberger’s ambitious songwriting abilities are evident in all facets of their music. Blueberry Boat, while being one of the most critical acclaimed albums of the year, can be an admittedly difficult and tedious album to appreciate. But what the Fiery Furnaces managed to do on Blueberry Boat was strike the perfect balance between their zainy, schizophrenic songwriting and their pop song sensibilities. Think about what it would sound like if Girl Talk had been the fifth Beatle. Matthew Friedberger’s love for abrupt switches and off-tempo interludes makes their music paradoxically both cohesive and spastic. Their efforts since Blueberry Boat have found mixed success in finding that balance. 2006’s Bitter Tea is overbearing and tough to get through and while 2007’s Widow City lacks a distinct flow, it contains some of the band’s technically impressive material. The band’s live show is one of the most incredible I have ever witnessed, with Matthew leading onstage instrumentalists through seamless transitions from song to song and tempo to tempo, while jumping back and forth between two keyboards and singing.
What’s interesting is how polarizing the band’s signature musical dynamics have managed to be. Their ADHD styled compositions have been lauded by some, but called “toe-curlingly unlistenable” by NME magazine. Not to mention their love for doing weird shit like writing concept albums with and about their grandmother (check out 2005’s Rehearsing My Choir if you want to hear Grandma Friedberger do spoken word, seriously) or hiding secret messages in backwards vocals will surely turn a lot of people off. That’s why I think that The Fiery Furnaces’ 2009 album I’m Going Away will both please fans of old and perhaps convince some people originally turned off to the group’s wild antics. I’m Going Away finally finds a band focused and content with writing concise, traditional alternative pop songs. The result is a strong, refreshing and catchy album that retains the complex subtleties that have gotten the band this far while embracing a more manageable approach to songwriting. Album opener “I’m Going Away” has the signature driving dynamics that we saw on Widow City: sliding bass, bouncy piano, intense percussion and Eleanor’s frantic lyrical onslaught. Much of the album’s songs find their strength in their use of catchy piano and guitar lines that mirror Eleanor’s subdued vocals, namely the gripping “The End Is Near,” the lighthearted “Even In The Rain” and the brooding “Keep Me In The Dark.” Equally as rewarding is how well the album’s longer tracks work when placed next to the rest of shorter tracks. “Lost At Sea,” the album’s standout, features one of Eleanor’s most riveting and emotional vocal performances paired with dramatic chord changes and a revolving guitar line. And despite its six and a half minute length, album closer “Take Me Round Again” is one of the most captivating, with Matthew and Eleanor repeating a rousing chorus backed by jangling piano keys.Unlike Blueberry Boat, there’s no 10 minute title track to be found on I’m Going Away. Instead, we find shorter but equally as ambitious stabs at eclectic alternative pop. And while I’m sure some fans will find call it a ‘lazier’ or ‘dumbed down’ version of the band, I think I’m Going Away is the strongest thing the band has done in years. In a musical year full of surprising comebacks (It’s Blitz!), the Fiery Furnaces have earned a spot on the list of the year’s most interesting albums and have certainly reassured me that they are still capable of captivating and reinventing. And don’t worry, the band hasn’t lost any of their craziness, as is exhibited through their recent release of Take Me Round Again, for which they both recorded their own interpretations of songs from I’m Going Away. Right on.Click the album artwork to sample I’m Going Away and I have also included a little bonus: The Fiery Furnaces’ awesome cover of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” from the Rubber Soul tribute album This Bird Has Flown.mp3: The Fiery Furnaces- Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) from This Bird Has Flown: A 40th Anniversary Tribute To The Beatles' Rubber Soul