By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Some years, live shows can be a drag. That was my lot in 2003. Not that there wasn't great stuff to see, I was just really unlucky. The New Pornographers ground out their usual sparks, but then they didn't play my favorite song; the Shins drew a frat-pack crowd that made me glum; Beck looked scared of Wayne Coyne; Stew was salty and precious; and the Rapture sounded like they were trapped inside a TV. Late in this sad series of punk'd lotto rub-offs, I happened upon the Fiery Furnaces. They were opening for British Sea Power, and had already started when I slipped in mid-skronk and was drawn stageward by cool, lanky Eleanor Friedberger's jaunty stance and full-throated alto pronouncements. "I wish I was single agay-un!" she intoned like a dare, managing in her long-banged detachment to propel that oft-genderfucked folk ditty about marital smack-ups and long-gone "pockets that jingle" into some kind of dry-ice post-rational come-on.
The no-wave quirk kept coming. A mix of nursery-song mishmash, toaster-oven blues, '70s pop squirts, prog-hops, and carnival vamps. As unlikely as it was from the looks of the central twosome, this Fader-magged Patti Smith and her smoldering pomo-Mozart older brother Matthew were up there transcending every trendy throwback. I waited for it to wear thin, go kitsch, get cute. But the songs only got more emphatic, more intricate. By leagues more harrowing than hip.
Neo-Brooklynites hailing from Oak Park, Illinois, the Friedbergers may not be out to paint the White Stripes red, but it seems only natural to compare their debut, Gallowsbird's Bark (Rough Trade), to the overrated offering from that other Midwestern indie-darling duo. Some of us really wanted to love the Stripes' Elephant but have found ourselves never actually playing it, and Gallowsbird's Bark has, with nervy elegance, laid bare all the reasons that might be. What the Furnaces show is that the revivalist rocker palette is so much richer than Jack White seems to know. Yeah, White has equally weird ideas about childhood, he shreds, and he's listened to a lot of Zep. But there's something about the Furnaces that tells you they've maybe been to Cedar Point, played Q-Bert, heard Brecht-Weill, watched a Busby Berkeley movie. They've also internalized some New York '77, but avoided that special CBGB-via-the-morgue feeling of most retro-rock imitators.
And even if the Furnaces' demented Carpentry hasn't really coalesced into the songwriting genius it suggests, it would get over purely on sprung rhythm and sonic insistence. The dada-manic fountain that issues from brave Eleanor may, as some have complained, manifest less the abstract poetics of a new girl Dylan than the inside-joke shorthand of a mad-libbing juxtaposeur, but there's really no reason to scrutinize that closely. Plus, every song on Bark's got at least one line that totally slays. In the jittery "Asthma Attack," we get "I been there before/Once, twice, three times maybe/Once with my mom and twice with my baby," and in the job-shoving spazzer "I'm Gonna Run," Eleanor's temp-drone office is a house of horrors where, she proudly admits, "I slit my wrists with my Swingline."
Like Dylan, she trots the mystic globe, from Trenton to Turku, Moline to Anjou, and her "South" can be either American Delta or the crossroads to anywhere. And like Dylan, she meets Gypsies, shakes her tambourine, and pirates songs from native naïfs. Over "Don't Dance Her Down"'s blistering traps and a synth blare that sounds like Gary Numan torturing a bath toy, she brags, "I played cards in England/Threw dice in Spain," but on "Leaky Tunnel," she tells a clingy boy who says "Let's make love in the water," "I got no time for a dip/'Cause I'm headin' for my ship." On the album's bouncy 12-string melodic coup, "Tropical Iceland," (pronounced "Icee-land" of course), she waves hello to Nordic folk-pop and bye-bye to stateside garage-rock brawlers. "Bow Wow," a Dr. John-style cakewalk, morphs into an almost Rundgrenish chorus, before falling suddenly back in step. And unlike the Stripes' deadly serious reverence, tracks like "We Got Back the Plague" somehow bow all the way to the killing floor in homage to John Lee Hooker or Howlin' Wolf, then admit defeat by adding a punctuating boing! drum that shifts the whole thing into trampolining self-parody.
Their chaos ensured by non sequiturs,Bark's 16 sharply angled tracks replicate the noise of everyday disconnect. It functions in this present spider-hole moment before Bush's probable reelection like the music of Guided By Voices did in the interstitial haze of '90s slackerdom. Of course, GBV sounds nothing like this blues-rooted calliope, but there's something similar about the sense that music can play in your sphere, scoring the symphony of your synapses, every now and again breaking through with some clear exhortation, but mostly just validating good, honest media-addled fragmentation. As Eleanor exclaims in "Bright Blue Tie," a flash assessment of a new environs, "This must be paradise/But it's not, no, no, no/But it's sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet."