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The Fiery Furnaces - EP

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Artist: The Fiery Furnaces

Album: EP

Label: Rough Trade / World's Fair

Review date: Feb. 10, 2005

There's a certain kind of anachronism for its own sake that's worth sitting through, but the covenant between its maker and its audience has to be founded on something more substantial — talent is usually a good bet, although intelligence will do most days as well. Something about the Fiery Furnaces has endeared them to a large public, but if it's either of the above it hardly shows on their latest release, called EP (because it's only half as long as last year's Blueberry Boat, presumably). With pretty much the same formula as its predecessors — carefree, precious pop with an overflow of musical ideas and no attention span to speak of — it may be more uneven than the duo's other work, but it's no more or less grating or pleasing; it just does what the Fiery Furnaces do, unapologetically and incessantly.

Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger are perky, but that's not exactly what's irksome. The problem is rather that the perkiness, as with almost everything else they do, feels fundamentally disingenuous. They're not a band to be enjoyed ironically; they're a band who sound ironic by design, as though they're only singing about parachute pants and anthropomorphic candy bars because depth and conviction are passé. And true as that might be, an insurmountable bar doesn't mean there's no bar at all. If they can't be bothered to try, why should we be bothered to listen?

Therein lies the problem, though. If the Fiery Furnaces were just a band who didn't try, nobody would care. The troubling part of their work is that it clearly has the potential to be good, at times great. When they drop the smirk they can be excellent lyricists; when they calm down their attention-deficit structural arrangements they can make pretty songs. In the mercifully calm "Evergreen" a perfectly lovely chorus crops up between some middling verses and an incongruously raunchy guitar solo; but moments like it are fleeting and, amidst so much reductive and overly quirky content, serve more to remind the listener of what's missing than to provide enjoyment. It's the same as it was on Blueberry Boat: "Chief Inspector Blancheflower" gets compelling between its fifth and seventh minutes, but it's hard to want to spend the time sifting for the good parts.

Paradoxically enough, the not-so-good parts would be better if they had any room to breathe whatsoever. While there is something cloying about Eleanor's faux-posh singsong voice (Matthew is largely mute here, save a couple songs) and the transparently artificial base of most of the auxiliary instrumentation, it's mostly the haphazard stacking of meters and themes that makes listening so difficult. "Smelling Cigarettes," for instance, uses at least 10 songlets over 5½ minutes, among them a string dirge (to which Eleanor intones "Don't you key that brand new Camry") and a weird Wilco-lite woodwind interlude. It's one of the least objectionable tracks on the EP, and none of its individual sections are particularly offensive (if not terribly good, either), but there is no apparent method to how one gives way to another. It seems to be jarring because it can be – and to a certain extent because it's institutionalized its own schizophrenia – but the novelty is quick to wear off.

Fortunately, that flaw isn't entirely universal on EP: some of the better songs find a groove and stick with it (the opulent "Sing For Me"); some sound pretty good despite their lyrical inanities ("Sweet Spots"); and some are just altogether the stupidest fucking song ever ("Duffer St. George"). But if cutesy lyrics and catatonic structure are the easy problems, the tougher one remains: why won't they deliver on the promise they display? What are they proving with the counterfeit enthusiasm of "Tropical-Iceland" besides that they're clever? And as for us, what use do we have for their irony? At least the Magnetic Fields are upfront about their intelligence; at least They Might Be Giants elevate the discourse every once in a while. Without tying their quirks — and, yes, their cleverness — to any real overarching purpose, the Fiery Furnaces don't really reinvigorate songwriting so much as flout it.

By Daniel Levin Becker

Other Reviews of The Fiery Furnaces

Blueberry Boat

I’m Going Away

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View all articles by Daniel Levin Becker

Find out more about Rough Trade / World's Fair

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