Agony Shorthand

Friday, August 26, 2005

Not to be vain or anything, but how many people did I piss off by touting this band to the heavens last year around this time? I know of a couple of people who told me they subsequently checked them out upon my recommendation, which is great, and of those, two told me they were into it, and two told me that it was some of the “worst shit I’ve ever heard”. OK! Thing is, I get where the latter are coming from, and can peacefully reconcile it with my heartfelt contention that the FIERY FURNACES are one of the best bands on the planet right now. It really can be argued that they make a sort of “show tunes” of a kin with those heard in Broadway musicals, but if that’s true, they’re actually the sort of show tunes that were playing far, far off Broadway, in the lofts and dens where kids too intelligent for the theater were making their own absurd multi-act plays, songs and sketches. The band, to me, are wildly creative and often exhilarating, and they tap into so many of my favorite things at once: the Velvet Underground, pure & raw pop music, early Who, first-45/first-LP Patti Smith, and 60s drug psychedelia. The Friedbergers are the Lieber/Stollers of their day -- on fuckin' acid, maan! They also add in stuff that maybe I don’t like so much but that, in their hands, make that irrelevant: synth beeps right out of obnoxious modern dance music, bigtime electric keyboards, and – let’s just call a duck a duck – PROG music. In their hands, it’s all right, ma. As I’ve said before, their two full-length CDs “Gallowsbird’s Bark” and “Blueberry Boat” are both essential, and are Top 10 candidates for best records this half of the decade.

So on the eve of their upcoming new album in October (and a show in San Francisco at the end of September that I just bought a ticket for), I thought I’d weigh in with a shot across the bow of everything I just typed by reviewing this relatively recent 10-song collection of their singles called “EP”. It contains some warning signs, much like the last live show of theirs I saw, that they have the potential to be far too clever for their own good. “EP” sounds at times more like outtakes not good enough to make their albums than it does a singles collection; taken as a whole, you’d probably reckon that The Fiery Furnaces are a good band but guilty of some serious overreach. I half-panned their most-recent CD-EP “Single Again” earlier in the year, but compared to monstrosities like “Duffer St. George” and the horrid “Sullivan’s Social Slub”, it’s one of the best things on here (“Evergreen” and “Here Comes the Summer” are actually lush & pleasing pop songs that grow better every time I hear them). Others are just plain pleasant quirky pop songs ("Cousin Chris" and "Sweet Spots"), better than 90% of their peers but so what. I just wonder, though. I don’t have a problem with the whole “song cycle” thing they’re so fond of – breaking a 7-minute song into 4-5 mini-songs that have little to do with a whole – but at times I get the sense they’re pissing themselves pretty by being so overwhelmingly and snobbily “inventive” and “groundbreaking”. Sometimes it’s just too, too much. Nah, they’re just an exceptionally talented brother/sister act who are going to make the mistake of bleeding too many of their mistakes onto vinyl & ones/zeroes if they don’t get their act together in a hurry. “EP” unfortunately gives aid and comfort to those who thought I was high on glue when I called the Fiery Furnaces “my new favorite band”, while still being good enough to stay in the collection of those who’ve already bought into the genius the band is capable of. Let’s hope I’m not glumly revealing an “October surprise” vis-à-vis the Fiery Furnaces’ new album on this site in a couple months.