The Fiery Furnaces
(Rough Trade; 2005)
By Peter Hepburn | 15 December 2007
The best live act I saw in 2004, hands down, was British Sea Power; the second best, Fiery Furnaces. Now, I knew that BSP was supposed to be amazing live, but I hadn’t heard anything about the Furnaces live set. It’s quite possible that I could have read a dissertation about it before hand and still wouldn’t have been ready: the four live members of the Furnaces seem, very simply, to be born performers. They got up and played, non-stop (honestly, none of them stopped playing and/or singing), for a good hour and a half. Songs that I hated on Blueberry Boat were suddenly awesome as they were merged together in bizarre new ways. Lyrics were thrown in from different songs and choruses thrown around liberally; both Eleanor Friedberger and the drummer seemed like they had probably done a mountain of coke before taking the stage, and they played a few b-sides that absolutely blew away all the material on their albums. Which is where EP comes in.
Collecting a bunch of b-sides (though inconveniently not all of them) and a few odds and ends, EP clocks in at a solid 40 minutes, making it longer than either Shins record. That last snide remark is worth further discussion, and we here at CMG have wasted hours of potentially-productive time arguing in vain about whether the Furnaces were no-talent hacks with a good thesaurus and a better ability to play exactly the same melody on about 50 different instruments, or if they were, just possibly, rock geniuses. I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the case for the latter, but there were some fascinating elements to Blueberry Boat which, if it had been condensed to the size of this EP, would have been one of the best albums of the year. As an EP, this new released promised to solve that very problem; so how does it fare?
Not surprisingly, it’s another mixed bag. EP has the Furnaces’ best song (“Evergreen”); a strong runner-up (“Here Comes the Summer”); a re-recording that tops the original (“Tropical-Iceland”); a heartfelt song (“Sing for Me”); fun storytelling (“Smelling Cigarettes”); and unbelievable wordplay (“Sullivan’s Social Slub,” “Cousin Chris”). Then again, it also has a handful of throwaways (the first half of “Cousin Chris,” “Sweet Spots,” “Single Again”), recycled melodies and elements (“Sullivan’s Social Slub,” “Here Comes the Summer”), and all the same fundamentals that make people dislike the Furnaces, just in smaller doses. Let’s deal with the positives first.
The most glaringly wonderful songs are the fantastic one-two punch of “Here Comes the Summer” and “Evergreen.” The former manages to capture that hopeful anticipation of summer sun (especially poignant in January) within a great, bouncing pop format, right down to the subdued, playful riffing at the end. “Evergreen” is very simply perfect — the Furnaces have had this song in their repertoire for awhile, and they’ve managed to mold it superbly. Matt Friedberger has created a fantastic sonic landscape, with backward-looped guitars and a simple drum track building behind Eleanor’s flawless delivery of some of his best lines. She pulls it off breezily, and neither overwhelms nor is overwhelmed by the music, which gets even better after Matt’s equally impressive solo.
Nothing touches “Evergreen,” but “Tropical-Iceland” is close. The song was a favorite of mine on Gallowsbird’s Bark, and re-imagined here in power-pop form it’s even better. “Sing for Me” makes the case for more Matt-sung tracks, though the instrumentation gets a bit dull. “Smelling Cigarettes” is fun a few times, and the woozy, unstable second half of “Cousin Chris” is a fun lo-fi moment. “Sullivan’s Social Slub” one-ups the wordplay of even “Cousin Chris,” but it drags on far too long.
Still, despite some serious shortcomings, EP generally comes out in the Furnaces’ favor. They’ve proved here that they can still keep their songs short and sweet, and that they do have a gift with pop music (keep in mind that the longest song on Gallowsbird’s Bark was just over four minutes long). That said, this focus seems to be fleeting; “Smelling Cigarettes” may only be five and a half minutes, but it’s just a smaller Blueberry Boat-style epic. If they would focus on individual vignettes, the lack of melodic change would be more acceptable, and the songs would just be more interesting and fun to listen to. We’ll see where they go from here, but hopefully they’ll continue with the sonic exploration of Blueberry Boat, just with the sort of restraint seen on a parts of EP. The jury’s still out, and I’m saving judgment ‘til I hear the inevitable live album, but EP is a step in the right direction.