Concert Review: Fiery Furnaces at the Bowery (filter-mag.com)

Disappointment reigns supreme.


The Fiery Furnaces
Bowery Ballroom, New York City
Filter Grade: 60%
by Chris Ruen | 09.29.2004

For the days leading up to the Fiery Furnaces’ show at the Bowery Ballroom last Saturday, my biggest concern was the setlist. I’d heard that they like to change up their songs, and I didn’t have the expansive Blueberry Boat memorized. Also, I hadn’t even heard their first album.

On subways to and from Brooklyn that Saturday, I finally nailed down Blueberry Boat’s tracklist after some note-taking and careful listening. And though I had already come to enjoy the album (after some initial reservations), I found myself drawn in further to the winding tales the Furnaces so interestingly lace with abrupt, striking and at times brilliant musical shifts within their epic songs. I knew there was no way they could recreate all of the songs as recorded, and I knew some arrangement changes would have to be made. But what I ended up getting at this concert was a dumbfounding, counterintuitive mess. I’m still scratching my head at their performance – essentially one long medley, with few cohesive songs actually being played.

Opening act, New York’s own White Magic, had no idea who they were. Their lead singer looked about as happy to be onstage as I was happy to see my newly crimson pillow the morning after getting my wisdom teeth pulled – and that’s not too happy.

She was wearing a hospital smock, and a mask on top of her head, sitting behind her keyboard. The guitarist and drummer both wore expressive, tribal masks on their faces, but mixed with their street clothes – and that the singer (1/3 of the band) wasn’t wearing a mask - the desired effect was lost and it instead came off as a poorly executed gimmick.

The deal on White Magic is this: the guitarist and drummer wanted to have fun, and displayed some downright incredible material, but the singer was just a downer and the two elements of the band clashed, at least musically. It was sort of like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion meets the dreariest of Cat Power with shades of Native American chanting - and that is simply not a winning combination. But I didn’t really care about the opening act, I only came to see the Furnaces for myself – and boy was I disappointed.

The Fiery Furnaces haven’t built their name on amazing hooks or striking lyrics. Let’s be fair, they are known for doing things differently – for innovating in the realms or pop and rock. And, how do they innovate? Well, rather than writing and recording a straightforward, four minute song with consistent chord progressions, repetitive melody, and a gradual arch of intensity, they take what could be the elements of eight different songs and put it all together into an engaging and exciting composition, often with the lyrics imparting a meandering story to match the meandering music. The songs are somehow held together while taking the listener on a rewarding journey through musical peaks, valleys, babbling brooks, caves, forests, etc. The only reason why this all works is because the compositions don’t seem like they should be compositions, and the listener is left to “find” the song on their own. Much of the material is only as good as what is coming before or after it. Their music is all about expectation and delayed gratification.

So, what happens when the band opts out of playing the songs in vaguely familiar terms and forgoes the song structures which made their music interesting in the first place? The show I went to happens.

The set list ended up being the least of my worries, mostly because it was inconsequential. They opened by playing tiny segments from “Blueberry Boat,” “My Dog Was Lost But Now He’s Found, “ and “Straight Street“ as Eleanor Friedberger jerked onstage. These were all frenetically guitar-driven – all but ignoring completely what the tunes “sounded” like.

I thought, “Oh, it’s a wacky medley! I hope they play the whole songs later on…hey, when is this going to end?”

It never ended. It was one long, directionless, weaving medley. A couple verses of “Chief Inspector Blancheflower” leading to an excerpt of “Quay Cur” to another minute or two of “Blueberry Boat” and on and on. It was sustained musical whiplash.

Now this isn’t to say there weren’t some nice moments. The rethinking of a couple songs produced exciting results, and “Bird Brain” was refreshing in that it actually sounded a lot like itself. If a few more songs would only have sounded similar to their original form, I’m sure the show would have been good, even great. But they just took too many liberties with their music.

A little surprise here and there. Maybe a radically different take on a song or verse. What musicians often successfully use as spice in rock shows, the Furnaces tiresomely used as the fucking meat & potatoes. And this made the music itself inconsequential. It could have been any band up there playing any song. Maybe they achieved some of their musically existentialist goals, because all of a sudden nothing around me mattered and all I wanted was for the show to end.

The Fiery Furnaces like to experiment – and I’m glad they do. I fully support taking chances and pushing musical boundaries – but not at the expense of quality. New sounds should add to the music, not detract from it. An experimental concert set made of already experimental music, one would imagine, begins to detract.

After an uninspired encore, the medley was over. And I left the bordering-on-condescending show along with a mass of similarly disappointed fans.

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