09 January 2007

Review: The Fiery Furnaces/Emergency Party

Northsix, Brooklyn, 5 January 2007

It happens every once in a while. A band comes out of nowhere and kinda knocks your socks off. Most of the time I get a "you gotta hear these guys" or I'm about 3 months lagging on the critical buzz. But that rare occasion is quite exhilarating: an opening band brings it and you've found yourself in something completely new.

Friday night I made my way semi-exhaustedly back to Brooklyn, to Northsix in Williamsburg (for the Fiery Furnaces, we'll get to them in a bit). I realized upon arrival that I had been to that venue only once before -- the second Freaks Ball almost exactly 5 years ago. What the hell? Great room, great everything, why hadn't I been back. And now it'll be gone, or at least changed to something different. Farewell Northsix, me barely knew ye.

Anyway, there was one guy who opened up who wasn't too great, but turned out to play a powerful role in the Friedburger Band, so I'll give him a pass in retrospect. The second band of the night had the name "Emergency Party" which I immediately had a feeling about. Great name. A band name means so much. So they're setting up which is always fun to watch with a band you've never seen before. You stand there and kind of observe as the band's domicile comes together, it's very essence is splashed onto the blank canvas of a stage and you try to form in your mind's ear what this band is going to sound like. Of course, these guys are setting up their own gear which includes the requisite drums, guitars and bass, but also like a pair of dulcimers that are bolted down to tables with old-school keyboard/synthesizer and a couple of what I would call samplers and stuff.

And then there's a guy who is basically Jack Black Brooklyn style. I'm sure he gets it all the time, like the cliched way to talk about this guy is "he's like Jack Black" but what the hell, there you go. Let's just accept it and move on. And he sets up his guitar and then he unfolds an ironing board to which his own Yamaha-a-jig is bolted down and lighting fixtures and now I have no idea what this is going to sound like. Did I mention female bass player?

Before they even start to play I'm getting that wave of exhaustion: Friday night, long, sleepless week, standing already for an hour or two, no one to talk to... So it's the ultimate test, either I'm going to be cranky and "let's hurry this set the fuck up already" or you've won me over. So they start playing and about 5 seconds in they'd done it. Wow! Total energy. The Jack Black thing doesn't end with "that guy looks like the dude from Tenacious D!" -- he's actually channeling the spirit there, total manic, power guitar, facial expressions. But he's kind of serious, although not 100%. The music is like somewhere between the D and Zappa but totally rocked out. Three guitars at a time, occasionally overlapping in interesting ways, occasion swipes at the dulcimers or keyboard interludes or interesting voice samples and then some wild avant garde stop/starts and fat rhythm section that keeps the music moving and keeps the band feeling both way loose and utterly tight. The lyrics were such that every second or third line I would try to remember their zen brilliance and then they would slip my mind as the next bit I wanted to remember pushed it out of the queue. So absent a notebook or recording, I can only remember that I wanted to remember a third of what I could gather. Which, when it was all said and done, wasn't too much because it was an absolute flash of energy. It ended just as it got going, they only played for 30 minutes and by the end I had totally forgotten about wanting sleep or potential boredom and whatever.

Anyway, sign me up, I'm dying to check them out again. Here's their website and here's their myspace page and if you don't go hit those sites, at least read this fantastic band bio:

A group of people live together in a comune near the Bushwick wall. They isolate themselves from the radio, television, and concentrate on creating a new music. Their music is their own. They play it for themselves, they write it for themselves, they enjoy it themselves. Emergency Party is a discovery of the revolutionary spirit of young people in all parts of the world and particulary articulates the creative genius of the new music of Bushwick today. A trip into the progressive American music, an excursion into unstructured vocal and instrumental sound. This is Emergency Party, this is the music of progressive Bushwick, these are the sounds of progressive youth throughout the world.

As Gene used to say: thumbs up, way up.

All that for an opening band, I wish I could have described the sound better, but they are well worth checking out. Ditto on the headliner. I've seen the Fiery Furnaces a couple times, but once was opening for Wilco at Radio City and another time was at the outdoor ACLFest. I enjoyed both sets and their discs (yes, all of them, even this supposed cat turd), obviously I paid money to see them again, but I figured that playing their own show in a club would be infinitely better. But I had no idea...

I couldn't say whether their band was the exact same the other times I saw them, but Friday I was really able to grasp the whole Fiery Furnaces-as-live-band thing and it was really, really nasty. For the uninitiated, the Furnaces are essentially a brother/sister tandem who play a somewhat confounding unique style. Short blasts of coherence overlap and interleave one after another so that the music has a serious attention deficit disorder. Eleanor's voice is the primary element of the sound, and is a constant presence from beginning to end. It's like each song is a 5-10 minute running monologue, a first person narrative with one foot always firmly entrenched in some fantasy world and the other planted in reality, with a realistic conversational tone and complete attention to detail. Brother Matt (on the albums) plays a variety of instruments, but mainly keys -- piano, organs, etc. and there is a constant mixture of other "sounds" cycling in the background. The melodies are occasionally brilliant and poppy and addictive, but the hooks don't last long enough to be hooks, before one musical thought is completely defined another one has replaced it. The effect takes some getting used to and turns off most people you might ask. At the Austin set, they started with a nice crowd of "cool kids" who had probably put them on their list of "Pitchfork-recommended bands to check out," but it only took half a song to clear out about 75% of them and leave only the few of us who could actually stand it.

Friday night, though, was like a different entity. The m.o. was the same on the face of it, but frankly they totally rocked it like I didn't know they could, but always hoped they would. They came out - the Friedburgers and the band: drums, guitar, percussion. Matt just had one keyboard in front of him and Eleanor says they're going to play their newest (and best, IMO) album: Bitter Tea. I couldn't say for sure if they played the whole thing, I don't think they did, but they absolutely killed it for a straight 20-30 minute stretch. The key was the band backing them. The drummer, Bob D'Amico was one of these types that doesn't stop going, just 110% the entire time -- he was the guy, all night long. On top of that the percussionist (the guy who opened the night with his own band playing guitar and singing goofy songs) added some much-needed texture to the songs. The two of these guys had me dancing the entire time, which I didn't think possible. I would have granted you some headbobbing, but all-out dancing? Wow! The guitarist was sort of free to add his own elements to the mix and the occasional shredding guitar solo is what I've felt was missing from the Fiery Furnaces sound from the first time I heard Blueberry Boat. Matt F wouldn't have struck me as the guy who could just lay back and let his little creations get completely rearranged by other people, but for the most part that's what he did. Of course, he was right there and added plenty with his playing, but for the most part the stuff just moved on its own.

That initial stretch of Bitter Tea was a complete phenomenon. It's rare I see music so quickly into the new year even rarer that that music could be the best thing I see for the next 12 months. I mean, these guys were locked in tight, like they had been locked in a cabin rehearsing, rearranging, reimagining, realizing what this music could be. It was still the Fiery Furnaces, weird, wonderful, wild, but it was a different beast -- a complete revelation.

From there they dipped into a variety of their past catalog, including a handful from their debut Gallowsbird Bark... "Name Game," "South Is Only A Home," "Slaving Away"... a totally awesome "Single Again" off their (seemingly full-length) EP had Eleanor in full-form -- a total presence like she was all night. She is the type you look at and wonder just what she could have possibly been like in high school. Amazing energy, total possession of the music, like constantly in character but the character is everchanging. Most impressive was her command of the lyrics -- each song is like a non-stop epic poem and she rattled off each like it was not only first person, but like the things she was describing were happening in real time.

The whole damn thing was pretty refreshing. The first time I saw them, I remember Matt kind of floating between instruments, doing some vocals himself, etc. Amazingly, this is one band whose members stick to one instrument the whole night. I guess my only real beef with the set was the lack of a bass player. I can't come to grips with the absence of a low end anchor in so many bands today, but such is life. Sorry, there was a second issue: the set was too damned short! I'm all for quality over quantity, but I felt like I could have stood there for a second hour or so. I highly recommend giving the Fiery Furnaces a chance, or another chance. They are a stripped down supremely unique rock and roll experience.

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