Gallowsbird's Park, The Fiery Furnaces' first record, begins innocently enough. But once the piano begins and Eleanor Friedberger begins singing, it becomes something closer to a punk rock honky tonk.
Friedberger's voice is low and dramatic, and the songs are giddy. The lyrics are surreal and hyperbolic. A whole mess of instruments muddies up the songs until it almost sounds more like a bunch of musicians practicing, rather than playing.
But it works. The Fiery Furnaces are, in fact, two very cool-headed siblings: Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger, who are trying, in Matthew's words, to play "songs that give the appearance of telling a story."
Matthew Friedberger grew up a fan of artists like the Who, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles, who were masters of story songs. He was fascinated by rock operas, by The Who Sell Out, and by the second side of Abbey Road. And he thought that if he was going to write songs, he should try and do something along those lines, for people like himself who were fascinated by the way "Mean Mr. Mustard" segues into "Polythene Pam" and then into "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window."
Gallowsbird's Park subsequently sounds like a '70s rock opera gone berserk. The energy and creativity of the songs is intoxicating; even though they kind of bleed into each other, and melody lines pick up again here and there, each song is entirely its own strange creature: Mean Mr. Mustard comes in through the bathroom window, and he's so good-looking, he looks like a man.
Although they grew up together, they didn't start playing music together until they were both adults and living in New York City. The band's bio goes into great detail about their circuitous way of arriving at the career of musicians, but the band really began, said Matthew, when Eleanor was ready to sing in front of people. Playing in a band with his sister seemed like the most logical thing to do.
"I wasn't playing at all in bands," said Matt, "so it seemed like a worthwhile thing to do. We did it just for the best reasons." (Unlike all other sibling bands, the Friedbergers seem to get along just fine, thanks.) Eleanor writes most of the lyrics, and Matthew writes the music.
The Fiery Furnaces began recording Gallowsbird's Park with borrowed money. "We thought we could make a good record ... but we didn't have much money to work with," said Matthew. They didn't have much time to work with, either, so the Friedbergers embraced that fact and let the record come together organically. "We tried to choose (the songs) spontaneously ... it's a spontaneous-seeming record," said Matthew.
"We were lazy about trying to get someone to put it out," explained Matthew; the second label they sent it to, Rough Trade, called them back. Gallowsbird's Park was released after the band began recording their second record, Blueberry Boat.
Blueberry Boat, said Matthew, is more elaborate since they now have the financial backing of a record label. It's longer, and it's based even more on the idea of the rock opera than Gallowsbird's Park. While Gallowsbird's Park starts with your basic guitar, and gradually leads you in to the batcave, Blueberry Boat starts right in with Sgt. Pepper's-esque madness. Eleanor's vocal melodies follow the same sing-song pattern of Gallowsbird's Park, except the music behind the song shifts and morphs into various stages of weird noise behind her. Not that the reviews on Amazon.com are the most credible source, but read those, and you get a good idea of the polemic the Fiery Furnaces create. One review claims it's the "most ambitious CD of 2004," and another calls it "absolutely terrible." One reviewer whacks the weasel right on the head: "Ultimately, this CD conveys ideas and poses about music, rather than music itself, and thus will probably appeal to posers and critics and others for whom the 'idea' of something has as much appeal as the reality of the thing."
Remember that Matthew said he wanted to write songs that "give the appearance of telling a story"--no one ever said that stories always have to spoon-feed the reader, or listener, as the case may be. People are usually intelligent enough to be able to glean meaning from snippets and snapshots and piece together their own interpretation, which is far more engaging and requires much higher-level thinking than music or literature that treats us like toddlers who are just trying to fall asleep.
"You have to have an excuse to bother to make rock records if you're going to make one," said Matthew; the Fiery Furnaces' excuse is to create a footnote to the rock operas and narrative records Matthew loves; external links, new branches growing out of different parts of the old tree. The band takes the original idea and stretches it a bit.
It follows, then, that their live show would be entirely different from their records. The Fiery Furnaces opened for the Shins in Tucson in June, and they took the stage and played straight through, never changing tempo or pausing between songs.
"As an opening act, you wanna play as much as possible; to some extent, you're free (to do what you want)," Matthew said, but still, "You have to get up there and get the hell off the stage," because everyone is there to see the headlining band. With all that in mind, the Fiery Furnaces choose to start playing and not stop.
"We like to change up our songs, do different arrangements ... play bits of songs. You kind of get into the bits that get into each other," said Matthew. It becomes a big medley that's "hokey, in an amusing way," like something "a hokey '70s band would do."
"It brings to mind that cheap pop theatricality," Matthew continued. "We are children of the '70s but we came of age in the '80s, and it's fun to do that kind of Ramonsism, but at the same time we get to imitate the Osmonds."
With all this in mind, The Fiery Furnaces are in fact quite postmodern; working with pastiche and kitsch and focusing more on the idea of it all, creating a different sort of medley of rock history, with footnotes and properly cited sources.