The Fiery Furnaces

Widow City

(Thrill Jockey; 2007)

By Christopher Alexander | 30 December 2007

I often wonder what a review would look like if it were approached the same way as a Fiery Furnaces album. There are nights when competing interests have sapped me of my energy, writing skills, and even my very taste and discernment, I wonder if there’s some way I can tap into the childlike mania the Friedberger siblings bring to their work. Indeed, if maybe typing a sentence backward, or writing in large blocky letters, or sudden, grinding gear changes of tone and style would actually improve my writing. And why not? I’ve written reviews as plays, interviewed myself as a teenager, killed off various musicians (and myself), and pulled up all the roots of autobiography one can in the name of entertainment. Anything to squeeze a few readable sentences out of a night, like tonight, when the only rhythm I can find is a Microsoft Word cursor, blinking to the lap top’s internal clock.

After all, the only thing I have to do is shit out a few hundred words once a week/month or so; the Friedbergers released something like five and a half hours of original music in a span of 30 months. Divisive as their music can be, each minute is wildly unpredictable and unhinged, recalling not so much their obvious musical touchstones — Os Mutantes, the Who, Captain Beefheart — but rather Tazmanian Devil tornadoes and long rides on Calvin and Hobbes’ toboggan. That’s what I hear, through the good ideas and the bad: this is kids’ music, and so the records have a childlike logic to them. Kids play house and make stuffed rabbits their children; Matthew Friedberger sings backwards to “speak in tongues.” It’s been complained that the band throws in everything but the kitchen sink; the kitchen sink was there to be used!

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we should switch places. Never mind my qualifications in this fantasy life-swap; if the Furnaces are going to turn out records like Widow City from now on, I honestly can’t see the harm in trying my hand at one. Not that I’m suggesting I could do any better. In fact, my argument relies on the opposite: that, since it would be much worse, it’d be more interesting. Because Widow City is a holding pattern — a severe betrayal of the joy, the consternation, and the intellectual and visceral reward of every prior Fiery Furnaces record. It’s the sound of a band defining their parameters, setting limits on themselves. The jig is up: the band is out of ideas, and this reviewer is out of patience.

Ironic, because this record satisfies a not-so-secret wish of mine: they’ve finally made a record with the live line-up. Unfortunately, the line-up is from the Bitter Tea tour, and that one honked: with Matthew on guitar and Robert D’Amico on drums, “Blueberry Boat,” the nine-minute title track of the 2004 album, was whittled down to two minutes and sped up to 188bpm. It really could only be described as a hatefuck. Fortunately, nothing on Widow City quite reaches that level of sheer tunelessness, but it never reaches the kind of rock n’ roll payoff that the 2003/4 tours soared through, either. When the guitars crunch here, like they do on “Clear Signal from Cairo,” “Uncle Charlie,” and “Whicker Whatnots,” it sounds like King Crimson, or “Liar”-era Rollins Band played faster and with less spontaneity. Their long run-times don’t help either: “Clear Signal from Cairo” must come in for the most calumny, as it is one of the most aggressively awkward songs ever written. The mode and syncopation of the song’s melody seems designed for maximum cringe effect.

There are just enough well written parts to save Widow City from being a full fledged throwaway. “Ex-Guru” is one of the best songs they’ve ever done, and features some of their best production; it’s a simple three-chord disco wonder that sounds like a leftover from Matthew’s fine solo release Winter Woman (2006). “Navy Nurse” is a better attempt at the classic rock entity Widow City is purported to be — a sludge riff sliding effortlessly into a jazz-tinged melody, somewhat recalling the first Chicago Transit Authority album. “The Philadelphia Grand Jury” opens the record promisingly: a simple groove with one or two extra beats leads the track until it shifts to a pretty-enough melody, switches gears again for the chorus, and then returns to the relaxed groove. Therein lies the problem: that reads like the blueprint to all of the Fiery Furnaces’ key songs, be damned or be praised. And it sounds tired.

The libretto/story/concept of the album is of absolutely no interest to me, and it won’t be to you either. The point of deciphering or inventing one for past albums, like I did with Bitter Tea or the blogger Mike Barthel did with Blueberry Boat, wasn’t to state that I “got it” or impute in them a kind of “meaning.” (I obviously can’t speak for Barthel, but I doubt he did either.) It was a testament to the kind of hex those albums cast — where you think of them on their own (fun) terms, so writing and thinking about the music becomes play. Writing about Widow City is just work, it’s just math, where the score actually says about as much as every word here. The album’s title conjures a place where everyone is missing something, something they’re used to, something that is a part of their life. It’s clear what Widow City lacks: the Friedbergers’ heart.