I woke up today tired, but forgetting my music listening device and having to race home and get it and then back out to catch the bus got the blood pumping. It could have been stressful, but instead I made the bus and have felt energized all day.
Disc 1019 is…Gallowsbird’s Bark
Artist: The Fiery Furnaces
Year of Release: 2003
What’s up with the Cover? Dog meets goat. Dog is looking a little bit agro, with a tongue hanging out and a steady stare, but Goat doesn’t seem impressed. I can only conclude that these two are on the knife edge of either killing each other or making out.
How I Came To Know It: An employee of Ditch Records (Griffin) recommended this album after learning I liked another of their albums (2007’s “Widow City”). I’ll admit that I checked out their whole catalogue after that, and Griffin was right; this was the best one I didn’t already have. I went back and bought it.
How It Stacks Up: The Fiery Furnaces have nine studio albums, but I only have two – this one and 2007’s “Widow City”. It is close, but I’m putting “Gallowsbird’s Bark” second. It is better overall, but “Widow City” has a few more of my favourite songs.
Ratings: 3 stars
By all my usual measures and rules I should not like “Gallowsbird’s Bark.” It is full of things I don’t like: complicated arrangements, jazz, techno, and frenetic beats that pound about and threaten anxiety. It’s even too long. Yet despite all this I can’t help myself; this record is too good to be denied.
The Fiery Furnaces consists of siblings Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger. Matthew is a mad genius who plays most of the instruments and writes the songs. Eleanor is the principal singer who carries the tune – more on that later.
Matthew creates music that is crazed and frantic, and you are liable to hear almost anything in these short, strange little pop songs. You’ll get samples, crashing drums, jazz piano, hand claps and occasionally even an ordinary electric guitar. It can seem jarring and directionless when you first hear it, but once your ear has acclimated (which doesn’t take long) you start to hear the genius amid all the jumble of sound.
Once you are aurally invested, you’ll realize what you are hearing isn’t a jumble, but instead a clever collection of syncopation and beats. Like James Brown, the Fiery Furnaces treat every instrument like a drum, each one punctuating a tiny piece of the song, and together creating a panoply of sound.
None of this would work without the sweet tone of Eleanor’s voice. She has a natural pop vocal power, and a rich full tone. She can deliver lyrics in either a jazzed up spoken word style, or a sweet melody, as the song demands. Sometimes the song demands both, and she makes that work too.
Eleanor Friedberger is how I came to know the band in the first place. I heard her solo albums (which are much more straightforward indie pop) and fell in love. I only discovered the band by the happy accident when the record store didn’t have any of her solo work and desperate, I took a chance on the band.
It was a shock to the system for a guy who likes his rock and roll to rock out and his folk simple and sweet. Even simpler songs, like “Two Fat Feet” are still a blend of styles (in this case, a laid back blues riff, a jazz piano and some kind of early eighties new Wave vocal performance from Eleanor). Against the odds, the Fiery Furnaces make songs like this work.
Before I wax too poetic, it is worth noting that when you are pushing the envelope this often there are times when your reach is going to exceed your grasp. Sometimes in their press to be clever the song can lose its way, or take too many paths at once. Even when this happens it is still interesting to the ear. Also, when you are in doubt or feel you’re losing the plot just fasten your ears onto Eleanor’s vocals. The songs are designed to let her carry the melody. Once you’ve recovered your bearings feel free to range back into the soup of sound that Matthew has prepared for the more adventurous.
When they play it more straight, such as on “Tropical Ice-Land” they demonstrate they are perfectly capable of writing an (almost) traditional pop song. With its easy strumming acoustic guitar, the easy rise and fall of the melody and Eleanor’s sugary delivery of the lyrics, this could have been a radio hit but alas, it is just a bit too complicated even still. Also, the band decides to drop a counter-melody in about halfway through, and layer the whole thing with some chirping bird samples. They just can’t resist.
The album is only 46 minutes which is about right, but at 16 tracks, each of them heavily laden with a lot of musical concepts, it is a little tiring. Also, while the album is chock full of interesting imagery, it rarely adds up to a narrative you can follow for long. Usually that would bother me as well, but with the way these songs work, building too much logical flow into the words would detract from some of its energy.
“Gallowsbird’s Bark” is definitely not for everyone, but if you like your pop on the experimental side this is something you’re going to enjoy a lot. It even won over a meat-and-potatoes guy like me.
Best tracks: I’m Gonna Run, Up in the North, Don’t Dance Her Down, Crystal Clear, Two Fat Feet, Tropical Ice-Land, We Got Back the Plague