The Fiery Furnaces
I’m Going Away
out July 21st
I’m going to level with you here: I haven’t heard much by The Fiery Furnaces. To be precise, I’ve listened to their fifth album, Bitter Tea, once or twice, and that was enough. If you’re like me – someone who appreciates a solid tune that has some semblance of a melody and structure; someone who, without fail, skips “Revolution 9” in favour of the less grating sound of “Good Night” – Bitter Tea is a challenging listen. It doesn’t instantly become your new favourite record in the manner of Passion Pit’s debut album, nor does it grow on you slowly, like Two Suns does. In truth, Bitter Tea demands active dissection, as its repeated use of backmasking and its generally chaotic nature obscure all that is good about the album, such as Eleanor Friedberger’s genteel voice and the gorgeous “Police Sweater Blood Vow”. As that track’s title would suggest, it’s as if The Fiery Furnaces aspire to being weird for weird’s sake – and Bitter Tea is ostensibly one of their most pop-y releases. Consequently, I was relieved to discover that their latest album, I’m Going Away, is much easier on the ears. The tracks are concise and harmonious, the flow between them is logical, and there are no hidden backwards messages: something I always consider to be a plus.
This is a new direction for the brother and sister duo (for reals, this time; thanks for nothing, Jack and Meg), and their new style is one that evades description. The twelve songs of I’m Going Away touch upon moments of baroque pop, country, folk, blues, jazz and even honky-tonk piano, but somehow, they combine to make a cohesive whole. There is a prevailing air of sunny, Seventies piano pop to the album, and indeed, in their press release, the Friedbergers describe it as being dramatic in the way that 1970s sitcom Taxi was dramatic. Certainly, with its fidgety pace, storytelling lyrics, and recurring themes, I’m Going Away has the air of an insular melodrama. It opens with its title track, a traditional tune arranged by the Friedbergers. It’s bluesy and agitated, veering to and from a churning, distorted bassline to a tinkling cascade of percussion and jazzy rhythm guitar, while Eleanor provides a veritable storm of vocals. Following such a frantic opener, “Drive to Dallas” comes as a relief: it has a laidback, folk-country ballad vibe to it that’s reminiscent of early Rilo Kiley, right up until the frenzied guitar solo halfway through.
This creation and subsequent release of tension features in much of I’m Going Away, and indeed, the album’s success stems from this back-and-forth motion between textures, tempos and dynamics. Fast songs lead into slow songs, and vice versa. In places, there is even contrast between lyrics and instrumentation: the despondent narratives of “Lost at Sea” and “The End is Near” are belied by their perky melodies. The latter opens like Carole King’s “So Far Away”, and indeed, Eleanor shares her smooth, mature tone. This song – one of the best on the album, in my estimation – allows Eleanor to explore the more emotive qualities of her voice, which are often lost to the typically frenetic pace of The Fiery Furnaces’ work, while Matthew Friedberger’s understated vocal performance anchors his sister’s.
2009 has been a great musical year: Animal Collective, Bat for Lashes, La Roux, Passion Pit, Grizzly Bear, Little Boots and Phoenix have released stellar albums, and it’s still only June. Subsequently, I sense that when it comes to the time for us to order our favourites, it’s unlikely that such a low-key work as I’m Going Away will make an appearance in many Top 10 lists. That said, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it rank among the Top 20. With this album, The Fiery Furnaces have abandoned the eccentricities that made their previous releases so inaccessible, and tapped into their inner pop sensibilities – and the result sits so much better with me than Bitter Tea did.
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