Cover Story: Jump Into the Fire

Critics be damned, as Desdemona Festival performers The Fiery Furnaces follow their own artistic instincts

Rough Trade Records

Despite baffling critics, brother/sister duo The Fiery Furnaces have a growing base of fans who follow right along with every eclectic whim.

Eleanor Friedberger recognizes the polarizing effect that she and her brother Matthew, in the form of their singular Indie outfit The Fiery Furnaces, are having within and beyond the music community. Fans of the band are rabidly ecstatic and critics of the band are vehemently opposed to almost everything they do, while reviews range from slobbering tributes to foaming derision.

The critical reaction to the Brooklyn-based duo's contribution of a stylized version of The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" to a recent Rubber Soul tribute album was a case in point.

"People hated that, too. I thought it sounded nice," Friedberger says with a laugh. "I did kind of a Bob Dylan impression. People didn't like that. I don't know why."

If the Furnaces' first three releases — 2003's Gallowsbird's Bark, 2004's Blueberry Boat, 2005's EP — inspired a broad range of reactions, the band's next project, Rehearsing My Choir, galvanized both sides of the critical response. Released last fall, Choir is an odd set of jazzy, freeform Pop songs for which the Friedbergers enlisted their storytelling grandmother, Olga Sarantos, to spin her colorful yarns while they provided a Captain Beefheart/Zappa/Guided By Voices soundtrack.

The Furnaces' supporters cited Choir as proof of the band's broader sonic scope and conceptual vision; detractors called it self-indulgent tripe.

"I think it has to do with expectations," Friedberger says about Choir's criticism. "A lot of people who listen to music have these really rigid ideas about what we should sound like and what other supposed Indie Rock bands should sound like. They just don't want to hear an old woman's voice or (something) without three-and-a-half minute songs. They totally reject it without thinking, 'Oh, I'm supposed to listen to this in a different way.'

"Maybe they just found it annoying and just didn't like it. But to really slam it would be because they think we should be something we're not."

The controversy surrounding Choir is deepened by the fact that the Friedbergers had intended their new album, Bitter Tea, to come out as a companion piece to Choir, an idea that the Furnaces' previous label, Rough Trade, rejected as unworkable. As a result, the Furnaces and Rough Trade parted company and the more guitar-appointed Bitter Tea found release on Epitaph Records' bluesy imprint Fat Possum in mid-April.

"Matthew Johnson (Fat Possum's founder) has been a really big fan of ours and a supporter," says Friedberger. "We met him before the first record came out, and he asked us to be on this Junior Kimbrough tribute he was doing. And I think he's just been waiting in the wings to jump on us, so we didn't try too hard to be on other labels. He was like, 'Let me have a go at it.' "

While some might see the brasher, more amplified Bitter Tea as a reaction to the backlash against Choir, the albums were created in such close proximity to one another that the band had no feedback, positive or negative, when they recorded Tea. In fact, a good deal of Tea was written after the Friedbergers entered the studio in the wake of a six-week break from each other, having just wrapped the Choir sessions in late 2004.

"We recorded Rehearsing My Choir in November/ December 2004, and then we recorded Bitter Tea in January/February 2005, so we had no idea," says Friedberger. "They really were supposed to come out together, either in the same package or at the same time — the 'grandmother' record and the 'granddaughter' record. They both stand on their own just fine, but it would have been nice for them to (have) come out together. It was supposed to be the old lady record and the teenage-girl-sounding record. We set out to make a poppy, shiny record (with Tea)."

Rehearsing the Choir and Bitter Tea actually represent the second time the Furnaces have created two albums nearly back to back (in fact, the cycle will continue when Matthew Friedberger releases his double solo album in August, Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School). The band's first two albums were fashioned along the same lines.

"I think Gallowsbird's Bark and Blueberry Boat really go together too," says Friedberger. "A lot of the songs we were playing out all at the same time. We recorded Gallowsbird's Bark more than a year before it came out and then we recorded Blueberry Boat before Gallowsbird's Bark even came out. With Blueberry Boat, we recorded it after we'd already signed up with a record label and we had three or four times more money to make it and a hell of a lot more time, so if it sounds different and more complicated and there's a lot more overdubs, that's the reason.

"The first one we did in three or four days and the second one we did in about five weeks, but to me they're very similar because the songs were written at the same time. It was like the older brother got a job and was able to splash out a little more, that's what Blueberry Boat was. We had our gold chains on for that record as opposed to the first one, where we were wearing our Converse All-Stars."

As for the tempest in a teapot surrounding Rehearsing My Choir, it hasn't fazed Eleanor Friedberger. She and Matt completely enjoyed the process of making the record with their grandmother, who was a musician and choir director in the duo's hometown of Oak Park, Ill. The experience provided more than enough satisfaction for them, in spite of the savage treatment it has received at the hands of some reviewers.

"We spend a lot of time together and she's just really funny and we just laugh when we're with her," says Friedberger. "Laugh at her, laugh with her, whatever. For me, that's the biggest thing. I listen to that record and it makes me laugh and it's because of the way she sounds and talks.

"Out of our whole family, she's the one who's most interested in music; she's made music her whole life and she gets joy out of playing music. And she's thrilled with all the press. There was a big feature on her in The Chicago Tribune last week and there was an article in Spin a few months ago that was just an interview with her. She carries her press clippings in her purse."

THE FIERY FURNACES play the Desdemona Festival Sunday at 8 p.m. on Stage 1.

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