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Monday, April 24, 2006
You've got the wrong Eleanor Friedberger
People have always accused the Fiery Furances of being obtuse and difficult, but with Bitter Tea, we can say for the first time that they seem to be doing it deliberately. Gallowsbird's Bark didn't seem that odd at first blush. On Blueberry Boat the off-kilter nature of the music fit the songs perfectly, and it's hard to imagine them sounding any other way, even if in the final analysis they could have made three or four songs b-sides or singles. And Rehearsing My Choir, which drew a lot of flack, again made perfect sense, especially once you became familiar with the narrative, even if, again again, there were bits (in this case musical bits) that could have been cut.
Now that we have Bitter Tea, however, it's impossible for me to shake the sense that they are not merely doing what they said about Blueberry Boat: "But in trying to be a decent rock band ourselves, we also have to accomplish progression by regression, and thereby should not only sing about---for instance---failure and incapacity, but embody it as well." They are not merely embracing failure, but actively undermining themselves, embracing one of the worst parts of the indie aesthetic, with Matthew pursuing the new-Dylan thing a little too hard. I guess this sense stems, in part, from the fact that we got to hear some of the Bitter Tea songs, unadorned, before the album came out. Once it did, some of these songs seem to have disappeared behind a wall of fruitless tinkering, and it's easy to draw a line from the production choices made on the songs we heard in their gestational state and what must have been done to the other songs we only got to hear in fully-produced versions.
Though I like the album and the songs, it's hard not to feel frustrated with how they turned out. Lots of people have complained about the sequencing by now, and they're totally right--it's a hard album to sit through, and it didn't have to be. But there also didn't have to be so much there--the album could be shorter by half without losing very much, either by cutting whole songs or sections of songs--and what's there didn't have to be so cluttered. This is frustrating because it seems so obvious, and given both the reliably good ears Matthew Friedberger has, and the inarguable fact that there are good songs buried under all that bullshit, it's hard to come out with any conclusion other than he's intentionally sabotaging his work.
Worse, this trend has carried over to the live shows. It actually began with the Choir tour, in which they played the entire album so fast and so hard that it almost didn't matter what songs they were playing, and it was, to my ears anyway, pretty much a failure, and, again, a frustrating one, like they were preempting criticism of Choir by refusing to present it in a positive light--"Yeah, whatever, it's difficult, people aren't going to like it." But I still think that album wouldn't sound out of place being played as an NPR segment, which I mean as a compliment. And then on their current tour they're doing a "rock band" approach, which sounds accessible, except that the Furnaces' charms don't really come out in a straight rock-combo arrangement, so again, it's a kind of grumpy distancing thing.
But then I started thinking about this, and I realized the seeds of this current disappointment have really been there from the beginning, and indeed are inseparable from the amazing work they've produced thus far ("thus far" being, it seems useful to remind myself, a mere 3 years!). Take their first, and supposedly most user-friendly album, Gallowsbird's Bark. Almost everything that bugs me about Bitter Tea is already in place: illogical noises, off-kilter takes on perfect songs, and general abundance; hell, even on the album's single, "Tropical Ice-Land," there aren't any actual drums, just a bunch of percussion. The thing is that here, all this stuff works: almost none of the songs are extraneous, and almost half come in at under three minutes; the noises get out of the way in time for the choruses, all of which provide solid, clear hooks, and are mixed in such a way that they compliment rather than overwhelm the songs; and the off-kilter takes are different but often better than what a more conventional band would come up with. Live, too, as they say, "The starting point of a rock band thinking about playing a show should be dissatisfaction with their songs," and their 2003-4 live shows, in which they chopped up and rearranged the various sections of their songs into a giant medley, were a big drawing point for new fans, but in the abstract, "let's play our songs really hard and fast" is no different from "let's play all of our songs as one big song"--it's just way less effective.
So in the end, I think the conclusion you have to draw from Bitter Tea isn't that the Furances are going about things in the wrong way. They're going about things the same way they always did. It's just that it isn't working like it used to. Arguably, this is the law of diminishing returns in action. But it's worrisome because, unlike with every other album they've put out, we have no idea where they're going next. There are no unreleased songs they've played live, and they don't seem to have said anything about their future direction as a band, as they always have before. Matthew has two solo albums coming out, but it seems unlikely that taking Eleanor out of the equation will really make things better, and from his descriptions, they don't sound that much different from the Choir/Bitter Tea style. I worry that I sound like just another fanboy when I complain about this sort of thing, but I don't want things to sound like Gallowsbird's again--I just can't shake the feeling that they've played this particular set of instincts as far as they can go, and they really need to try a different tack. Take a break, even. I suppose we'll see.