This week the Fiery Furnaces released their latest album, Bitter Tea and played at the Bowery Ballroom.
Much like how Radiohead’s Amnesiac related to its sibling, Kid A, Bitter Tea is mined from the same collection of songs as its predecessor Rehearsing My Choir but attempts to be more user friendly. I wasn’t sure what to expect since "user friendly" isn’t exactly in this group’s repertoire. The result turns out to be somewhere in between Rehearsing My Choir and their masterful Blueberry Boat. Even songs that are pretty straightforward for the band, such as Police Sweater Blood Vow would be pretty outrageous for most other groups. The duo never clings to standard time signatures and the songs seem to wobble and teeter on the edge of collapse, but that’s also what makes them sound so vibrant.
What’s curious about the album is that toned down versions of two songs are tacked on to the end of the record. I suspect this may have been the result of concessions with nervous record label execs, but who knows. While others may find relief in being able to hear more traditional, less crazy music, I didn’t find either track to be of anything worthwhile. After experiencing the entire album of their unbridled exploration, these versions sounded so meek and flat. It was almost a premonition of what the Fiery Furnaces would sound like if some major record label tied them down and cut their balls off.
Yeah, I was sort of hoping for a bit more of that Blueberry Boat magic but that’s probably not realistic or fair. It’s good that the band so fearlessly treads into strange, new lands. Listening to them takes work, but part of the appreciation for them comes out of that effort.
Now, on to the live show...
I saw the Fiery Furnaces at the last Austin City Limits Festival but it’s always hard to judge a band at a venue like ACL. It’s hot, the sound quality is totally different and they only get about 45 minutes to show off to tons more people. So this time around I didn’t know what to expect.
The result was a bit surprising. I had imagined the duo to be moody, shoe-gazing and shy. But they ended up being quite the opposite. Eleanor has to be the most polite rock chick ever and Matt seemed to be having a blast on stage. As if like just another fan (on stage), he would watch Eleanor sing and a huge grin would spread across his face.
The band powered through over fifteen songs in just over an hour but they weren’t speeding through the tunes because of apathy. I think the frantic pace is consistent with their nature. The song arrangements sounded closer to the album versions than when I heard them at ACL. The contributing factor was probably due to the fact that Matt chose not to bring his keyboard to the concert. Listening to the songs performed with a more traditional instrument arrangement (guitars, bass and drums) gave a glimpse of what the Fiery Furnaces would be like if they weren’t such mad scientists in the studio. Their songs translate pretty well into the format but I think I missed hearing the other elements.
Like the Beta Band, the Friedbergers create their sound with patterns and textures, whether it’s alliterated word-play or repetitive riffs. The problem is that that technique didn’t come off as well through the fuzz and distortion of amps and speakers on stage. So they relied on rocking it out on guitars, which wasn’t a bad thing.
I was impressed with Matt’s guitar skills but the band wasn’t exactly the tightest sounding live act I’ve ever heard. Yet unlike the Stills, the looseness seemed to play as a strength. Their albums are quite elaborate and crazy and I think meticulously trying to recreate them live just wouldn't fit with the spirit of this group.
One interesting incident tonight was when the two people next to me reached onto the stage and snatched a setlist out from under Matt’s feet before the concert was even over! I could easily read the astonishment and annoyance on his face. I wonder how disillusioning it would be to find out that your fans are thoughtless, rude assholes. Some of them anyway.
This looks to be an active year for the Friedbergers so here’s hoping for a few more New York shows and maybe an album or two!