SONIC REDUCER More power, I say, to sibling twosome Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger of Fiery Furnaces. FF's forthcoming 51-track, double-CD/triple-LP retrospective, Remember (Thrill Jockey), has been burning up my ear holes for more than two hours now, charged with the power of fraught familial relations, rock-out thunderbolts, and mysterious blueberry boats. And I confess, part of my wonderment at their artistry stems from the fact I could never be in a band with my own bro. Judging from our childhood knock-out, tooth-and-claw smack downs, we'd be at each other throats within minutes of our first band practice and triumphantly playing bad vibes with the vanquished's finger bones. Those are our kind of family values.
I get the impression the Friedbergers' relationship is just as intense, if less bloodied, talking to a chatty, quirky, and disarmingly frank Matthew on the phone from New York City. "We weren't friends growing up necessarily," he concedes. "We were friends after I left home, but we have to talk to each other so much now that we aren't friends in the same way. We have to spend so much time together that it's ... ridiculous." Doubling back on himself, the ever-analytical 35-year-old guitarist-keyboardist-vocalist just as quickly shrugs it off. "But that's the way it goes."
Still, we all know that family bands traditionally have sold the dream of togetherness: feather-light musical fun with none of the fighting-for-grub-at-the-dinner-table heaviness. Seventies ensembles like the Osmonds cozied up to those warm 'n' fuzzy associations in the genre's TV-pop heyday at the very moment that the generation gap seemed its widest while more recent combos such as Danielson Famile somewhat self-consciously play off of them. Not so with Fiery Furnaces. An electrical, emotional current between the magnetic, sexily verbose vocalist Eleanor and musical mastermind Matthew runs like a live wire through their songs, many of which show up on Remember, which splices together reworkings from various shows in 2005 and onward. Overall the collection set for August release but available on tour is musically formidable, capturing the aggression of their live performances alongside drummer Robert D'Amico, percussionist Michael Goodman, and bassist Jason Loewenstein, and coming off as a little overwhelming.
"Yeah, it's long. It's long. It's long," Matthew drawls somewhat wearily. "People sometimes resent the idea that they have to sit down and listen to the whole goddamn thing. So we wanted to make it clear: you needn't do that. Please use it as you wish." Consider it, he says, chuckling, "straight background music. I mean, I could say that it's meant to be an opera about the band, starring the band." Or Matthew adds, rearranging his thoughts like a tune look at the songs as objects that show the group "aging." Or try it this way: "It made sense to have the record be about the songs traveling, so to speak. What kind of journeys the songs went on, I say with a smirk," he says, a playful smirk clearly audible over his cell.
That searching sense of play and enthusiasm has kept the pair going as FF, which Matthew readily admits he never thought would last this long. Growing up in Oak Park, Ill., he performed in teenage rock combos before his younger sister summoned up the courage with encouragement from friends and her broheim to make music.