The Fiery Furnaces
(Thrill Jockey; 2008)
By Conrad Amenta | 16 August 2008
This mammoth, two-disc live album documents the Fiery Furnaces actually using instruments to play the music from their albums—in real time! Honest, they run through the idiosyncratic details of their alleyway sound, truthfully laying them out with ruthless efficiency, hitting drums and keys and producing sound and breathing air and, perhaps only once, fucking up. Which is why it’s way, way better than anything they’ve ever done in the studio insofar as it doesn’t intentionally crush me under the immense weight of its uncompromising pretense.
I find it almost impossible to care about this band’s discographic output; the effort required in parsing this particular fifty-one track album in relation to their studio work—talking about which of their suffocating albums are best represented or which enjoy fresh interpretations—is almost directly equivalent to the density of their musical black hole, into which any sense of buoyancy or enthusiasm is sucked and subsequently destroyed. See, the problem with those other Fiery Furnace records (besides that Eleanor Friedberger just mimics the central melody of the song ad nauseam until any trace of personality she might bring to the table is subsumed until the songs are as articulate as a digitless hand) is that performances and studio technique are indistinguishable in that context. Wankery is certainly less impressive without referent. Having said that, I’ve seen this indie version of Iron Butterfly play a few times and every time left thinking the show was jaw-droppingly fun to watch, even if the music I heard during was terribly pedantic, writerly, and seemed unremittingly unwilling to explore spaces, sucking all of the oxygen out of rooms and leaving its listeners gasping for something relatable.
That in itself makes Fiery Furnaces an interesting act: one of today’s best live bands who I won’t miss any opportunity to see but who also happens to/inevitably puts out some of the most unlistenable albums around. The first time I saw them they reworked all of those songs into old school alternative guitar rock versions, like Dinosaur Jr.; the second time, somehow, into tropicalia. These were virtuosic displays that suggest that the talent one suspects, along with an at-the-ready narrative of a couple of savant Music School kids, turns out to be at least part genuine. It’s just that enjoying on-a-dime shifts and prodigious displays of memorization is contingent upon actually being there to see it. On Remember you don’t get any of the live album tropes, the roar of recognition or singing along, because the Fiery Furnaces know they’re far too progressive to support anything so stiflingly traditional as participatory music. What you do get is indie prog impeccably performed by musicians at least as talented as Mars Volta but with better taste. A live album is exactly what anyone infuriated by these siblings needs to help them understand the band’s continued relevance.