Far from sibling rivalry
It’s a cold Wednesday night and I’m standing in an old church. I’m staring at a childishly cute girl while screaming fans cheer her on and grungy punk music blares through the speakers. Nope, I wasn’t doing whatever deranged activity you think I was doing: I was seeing The Fiery Furnaces at Mr. Small’s Theatre.
Since Pittsburgh has been deprived of any promising indie rock groups this school year — The Strokes, New Pornographers, Arctic Monkeys, and Belle and Sebastian have all skipped us over — I was surprised to see a non-local indie rock group stop by the city. For those who aren’t hip to The Fiery Furnaces, take notes: Made up of the dynamic brother-sister duo of Matthew and Eleanor Friedenberger, The Fiery Furnaces are post-punk indie rockers with a unique sense of compositional sophistication — and quirkiness — that I dare say is often lacking in the genre.
On their records, the Friedenbergers do almost all of the playing and composing, with occasional overdubbing from guest musicians. Unlike The Strokes and other indie groups, The Fiery Furnaces stay far away from simple song structures, standard time signatures, and basic harmonies: A normal song might be eight minutes, weaving into a section in 5/4 as easily as it drifts off to a section in 7/8. But don’t think the Fiery Furnaces are pretentious prog-rockers with a “the more complex, the better” attitude.
In fact, on top of the complex musical layers often come playful lyrics that, while enjoyable, have left me scratching my afro-covered head. In some ways, The Fiery Furnaces have the oddball sophistication that was once the drive behind Vermont jamband Phish’s music — orchestral arrangements with rock instruments... and yeah, weird-as-hell lyrics. In “My Dog Was Lost But Now He’s Found,” found on the band’s third full-length record, Blueberry Boat, Eleanor sings over the crazy combination of blues-shuffle piano and grunge guitars, “I went down to the market where tied up you used to bark at/ Went where you got adopted felt so bad I nearly dropped dead/ My dog was lost but now he’s found/ My dog was lost but now he’s found.” Strange, yes, but seemingly fitting over the deranged amalgam of musical influences and instrumentation supporting her vocals.
Although The Fiery Furnaces have a new record (Bitter Tea) soon to be released, they focused more on older material at Wednesday night’s performance. Standing on opposites sides of the stage, separated by bassist Jason Lowenstein and drummer Bob D’Amico (because hey, the siblings can’t do everything on stage), Eleanor did most of the singing while Matthew did most of the guitar shredding. Wondering if the separation had anything to do with the brother-sister conflicts that used to plague the two during childhood (but hey, who didn’t pull their sibling’s hair out?), I asked Matthew Friedenberger after the show if he and his sister still fight. “No, we get along fine,” he said with a smile. “Being separated just allows the rhythm section to interact more effectively.” As the bass and drums happily plucked and smashed away, Eleanor playfully twitched and kicked as she belted over the dry, treble-heavy blues riffs her brother screeched out of his guitar.
In the opening number, “Chris Michaels,” the group tore through any and every musical genre, from crunchy Metallica-esque guitar riffs to Beatles-influenced refrains to a quirky section in 7/8 to the melancholic sweetness of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Equally as impressive as the complexity of the compositions was the ease with which the group could perform them. Many rock groups rely on the recording studio to cover up for mistakes, lack of group chemistry, etc. Not The Fiery Furnaces: Without a single look up (D’Amico would frequently pound away eyes-closed), the group could nail transitions with near-perfect accuracy.
The Friedenberger siblings, who grew up in Oak Park, Ill., have been heavily influenced by their grandmother, a musician and musical director of the local church choir. On “Quay Cur,” the presence of Grandma is ever-apparent, as the group hammers through gospel-charged vocal melodies and daunting keyboard lines, while the passion and blues/rock element clearly comes from Matthew Friedenberger’s love for The Who.
The band treated the crowd to a new tune for the encore, entitled “Benton Harbor Blues.” As Matthew Friedenberger opened up the tune with just guitar, his sister whined with a smile, “Can’t we all just start it together?” Unlike on the CD, where the song briefly dips into static dissonance, the tune was upbeat and ready for radio. Eleanor gleefully chomped simple rhythms on her guitar while her brother strummed away on the support of his sister... but hey, after a night of ass-kicking rock tunes, Blueberry Boats, and whirlwind compositions, a feel-good pop tune can be a nice change of pace, right?