The Fiery Furnaces compress their glitzy prog-pop into bite-sized packets
Their overstuffed sixth album gives no indication that Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger intend to scale back their decadent musical buffet, which—according to your threshold for pageantry— might be regarded as a smorgasbord of delight or a gluttonous binge. The Friedbergers are maximalists trapped in a minimal age, where concision and austerity enjoy a higher premium than sumptuous overstatement. But if the Furnaces are the Cirque de Soleil to the prevailing trend’s Butoh, they’ve maintained a fairly sterling critical reputation against the odds. Like the guy in the triple-XL harmonica vest once said, “the hook brings you back,” and The Fiery Furnaces always pack plenty of memorable hooks into their intricately arranged prog-pop.
When the Furnaces debuted with 2003’s Gallowsbird’s Bark, being a sibling duo with a penchant for retro?tted blues-rock earned them the requisite White Stripes comparisons, but the album’s quirky arrangements and whimsical, obliquely narrative lyrics took a page from Neutral Milk Hotel. This marked the ?rst and last time you could easily compare them to any band other than their own. They quickly followed their debut with Blueberry Boat, a bloated prog epic that made the persistently inventive Bark seem staid by comparison. The multifaceted, instrumentally lurid extended jam became The Fiery Furnaces’ calling card. Where a more typical band might write 20 songs and choose 10 for their album, the Friedbergers seem to write a hundred and stitch together snippets of them all, unwilling or unable to pick and choose. Even working in shorter forms—as they do on the brawny and resolutely sculpted riff blitz of the title track—the hectic segmentation, high-art schmaltz, musical-theater melodrama and dizzying thematic overlap of the songs gives one an idea of what it might be like to listen to Gershwin medleys with a head full of crazy.
The Furnaces have always treaded a precarious line between daunting experimentation and pop accessibility, with most of their work skewing in one direction or the other. Widow City ?nds them settling comfortably into the median: It’s not the compass-less skronk of Rehearsing My Choir, a concept album built around the creaky reminiscences of the Friedbergers’ grandmother, but neither is it the relatively forthright synth-pop of Bitter Tea. Instead, it’s a meandering and muscular rock drama—digestible in three-minute chunks, and gloriously impenetrable in its hour-long entirety. Infectious melodies soar improbably from the smoldering wreckage of acid-bathed synths and stylized space-funk guitars, but are pinned down, still squirming, by Robert D’Amico’s thunderously supple percussion. The ornate architecture rising from this solid foundation sounds instrumentally diverse, yet most of it emanates from Matthew’s Chamberlain keyboard, an early analog synthesizer capable of generating (via loops of tape concealed beneath its keys) the string, horn and woodwind sounds draped lavishly about Widow City.
To chart the twists and turns of this album—its shifting terrain so detailed and unpredictable—feels more cartographical than musicological. We shove off in Philly on “The Philadelphia Grand Jury,” where quick runs of twinkling piano-segue serve as ligaments between guitar passages that alternately whiz and swoon. Chamberlin-generated bassoons echo the piano theme and Eleanor’s aching vocal refrain, and an extended soft-rock breakdown whips into a crunchy stomp by the end. After a quick trip through the “Duplexes of the Dead,” where a reverberating organ and soaring synthetic brass washes through an acoustic strum, and “Automatic Husband,” where spastic rock choruses erupt from bleating oompah verses, we ?nd ourselves suddenly shunted to the Far East on “Ex-Guru,” as noodling keyboards collapse into more sinuous strains through a violent tempo shift.
From there, it’s a short trip to Northeast Africa, where the glassy reggae of “My Egyptian Grammar” provides a welcome respite after the frantic “Clear Signal from Cairo,” which rolls apocalyptic fuzz bombs, a svelte staccato throb, weepy lobby music, free-jazz squiggles and a long section of proggy scorch into a roiling six minutes. By the time the cartoon sound barrage and circus synths of “The Old Hag is Sleeping” roll around, listeners will ?nd themselves either enthralled or utterly exasperated. Widow City covers so much territory so quickly that it can actually give you jetlag, and its geographical diversity is mirrored by its hallucinatory, irreconcilable lyrics. It’s a travelogue of the mind that uses musical history (drawn mostly from 1970s prog, soft rock and cinematic incidental music styles) as an environment and the Friedbergers’ personal history as a guide rail. This psychic map does not come with a key, but that doesn’t prevent us from enjoying the garish scenery along the way.