Sound: If asked to label The Fiery Furnaces' music with a single word, the first thing that comes to mind is difficult. The band, comprised of brother-sister duo Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, is certainly no easy listening assignment. If anything, making it all the way through any one of the Furnaces' previous seven releases without break or pause was the musical equivalent of scaling Everest without air. From the first moments on the first track, listeners knew they were in for a challenge.
So what makes it so difficult? Maybe it's the epic, layered approach to the songs Matthew, who writes and plays almost all of the music and lyrics for the duo (although as of late Eleanor has written more of the lyrics), is an extremely accomplished musician on a plethora of instruments. Or maybe it's the panicked, hurried vocals provided by Eleanor, whose quick, lower-pitched voice is often heard forcing an unusually high number of syllables into each line she croons. Or maybe it's the deliberately eclectic mix of styles from raw garage rock to smooth R&B, from soulful blues to piano-driven pop. Or maybe it's the quick changes in tempo that keep the listener guessing what will come next. All things considered, it is this deliberately perverse approach to their music that keeps the Fiery Furnaces' music interesting.
On their eighth release (and third with current label Thrill Jockey), I'm Going Away, The Fiery Furnaces have crafted what is easily their most accessible album yet. While their trademark sound remains largely in tact, the siblings have noticeably toned things down a bit. The songs tend to meander less, opting for a more straightforward path as opposed to the band's more heavily traveled, circuitous approaches. In other words, there is a clearly defined style to each song.
Staring At The Steeple, one of the highlights of the album, is a strong, bluesy rock tune, with a down and dirty bass line paired with menacing piano. On the other side of the spectrum are songs like Even In The Rain and Ray Bouvier are appealing pop songs with catchy, light-hearted piano and, especially in the case of Ray Bouvier, wonderful lead guitar-work. This is not to say that their quirkiness is totally absent songs like the title track I'm Going Away or Drive To Dallas (a slow, mellow tune that features an incredibly out-of-place, rapid-pace solo about 2 minutes in) will suit old fans just fine. // 8
Lyrics: One of the most distinct parts of The Fiery Furnaces' music is Eleanor Friedberger's unique singing style. With a low, cool (even at times sensuous) voice, Eleanor provides the perfect support to the versatile music, regardless of what Matthew throws into he mix. Whether it's her moody swagger on tracks like Staring At The Steeple or the soulful, sultry crooning on Keep Me In The Dark, time and time again she conveys the perfect mood. It's a voice that can simultaneously tear you apart and melt you like butter. Matthew lends vocals sparingly on the album, but when he does, the listener is in for a real treat. His smooth-as-smoke voice serves as the perfect complement to his sister on The End Is Near and Cut The Cake, helping to mark them as two of the best tracks.
Lyrically, the Fiery Furnaces are the best they have ever been. I'm Going Away is a miscellaneous collection of mysterious characters (Ray Bouvier and Charmaine Champagne), tales of loss, anger, and heartache (Staring at the Steeple) and of leaving everything behind (Drive to Dallas and I'm Going Away), all tied together by a theme of quick, reactionary behavior and its resultant repercussions. // 8
Overall Impression: I'm Going Away succeeds on two levels it both serves as a wonderful addition to the Fiery Furnaces catalog and stands alone as an astounding album in its own right. Certainly, it's not as adventuresome or daring as previous releases like 2004's Blueberry Boat or 2006's Bitter Tea. In fact, aside from being one of their most simple releases to date, at 47 minutes the album is also one of their shortest (with only 2 songs clocking in at over 5 minutes). It is this simplicity, however, that marks I'm Going Away as some of the band's most genuine, straightforward, and heartfelt work to date.
The stripped down approach further establishes the album as the band's most accessible release to date. While this may displease some die-hard fans, this marks a real turning point for the Furnaces, giving both old and new listeners a chance to hear a different side of the band. // 8
- Chris McDonald (c) 2009