Tier 3

music / / poetry / / philosophy / / -ology by Nick Courtright

Album Review: Fiery Furnaces’ Widow City

Between the strangeness of their music and their position as a brother-sister act du jour, The Fiery Furnaces are a band that’s easy to hate. They bludgeon their listeners with unapproachable albums featuring their grandmother’s talk-singing, backwards lyrics, and a willingness to shift gears in a song at the very moment an enjoyable melody becomes recognizable. On top of this, Eleanor Friedberger’s limited vocal range and Matthew Friedberger’s penchant for corniness have a tendency to put people off. So that’s the word on what’s shitty about The Fiery Furnaces, and without a doubt, Widow City is an album prone to its own variety of irritations. But somehow, it manages to overcome the annoyances with a blitzkrieg of ingenuity and utter incomparability.Sure, it may be difficult to survive the hour-long Widow City, an album where the songs tend to run together and the lyrics often verge on the obnoxious, but this effort of survival is part of the beauty of the Fiery Furnaces experience. Because once you get past the parts that leave you wondering what hell they were thinking, this piece of musicianship holds the kind of potential that, dare I say, a young Animal Collective once held. They are challenging and will make you scratch your head, but the bits and pieces of catchiness and hits-the-spot lyricism are infectious and always surprising.

While their recent albums were criticized for writing the music too directly around the lyrics—almost in a manner meant for the theater rather than the concert hall—Widow City is a compromise without too much compromising. The words still serve as the foundation on which the notes are built, but a less-schizophrenic approach to the material, and a willingness to emphasize melodic development rather than narrative, allow the Friedberger’s master plan to unfold delicately enough not to batter listeners into attention deficit disorder. When Eleanor says “Make sure they notarize my will” on opener “The Philadelphia Grand Jury,” the effect is captivating and contemplative rather than lost in the disarray.

But one of the most striking aspects of Widow City is its relative calm—although it rumbles and rambles through its digressions and delusions, it’s marked with a good-natured pleasantness rarely found on their last couple albums. This record features no gravel-voiced old ladies or choruses in reverse, and the sudden turns within songs are more measured and intuitive than in the past, when you could have put a track in a blender and come out with something no less structured than the original. The result here is unlikely pop paradise, as songs such as “Ex-Guru,” “Navy Nurse,” and “Restorative Beer” keep the head bobbing without ripping it off.

In the end, Widow City is The Fiery Furnaces’ most approachable album in years (if not ever), and for this some will thank their stars, while others will say the Friedbergers are losing that special part of themselves which had entirely lost its mind. But the one thing this possibly-genius-maybe-sucky band has going for it is that no one will ever make the mistake of thinking the siblings are anyone else but themselves.

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