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Mirror Man

One Fiery Furnace Releases Two Very Dense Solo Albums

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 8/9/2006

Matthew Friedbergerís dithering-if-conversational speaking style isnít all that different from the scintillating-if-overarranged noises he sculpts into Fiery Furnaces songs. The flow of his speech doubles back on itself, digresses wildly, and reiterates needlessly. Itís a winding one-lane road cratered with "uhs" and "umms" and "you knows" that are difficult to separate from whatever actual information heís trying to convey, via telephone from his Brooklyn apartment, about his brand-new double-disc solo album, Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School (859 Recordings).

"I tried to make [the album] sound like í70s pop songs--itís meant to sound like youíve got the [car] window open and itís coming through, maybe a radio thatís not even in stereo, kind of fuzzy and muffled," the Oak Park, Ill.-bred songwriter explains. "Like when youíre looking out the passenger window and the window is wide open, and some song is playing on the radio. Itís supposed to be very casual and not, you know, project personality. You kind of half-listen to it, and so itís not quite clear."

Four records and one compilation into their short career, the Furnaces have built up a certain reputation and their music comes with certain expectations. Though the band formed in New York in 2000, it took two years of gigging for the duo to land a deal with Rough Trade and another for its debut, Gallowsbirdís Bark, to be released. In photographs, Matthew, 33, and sister Eleanor, 29, exhibit a startled seriousness--he could pass for an older, gone-to-seed John Mayer, she looks like a Mennonite woman out on a weekend furlough--that is incongruous with their delirious music.

Bark wasnít wholly original but was executed with such complete abandon that it sure as hell felt like it: skinned-fingertip blues guitar shakedowns spritzed with gin-joint pianos and Eleanorís stark Sesame Street-style absurdities. "I pierced my ears with a three-hole punch/ Ate 12 dozen doughnuts for lunch," she sang amid the knotted wah-wah snarl on exaggerated pro-diet vow "Iím Gonna Run."

What began as garage- and folk-rock seeds grew into a teeming jungle of multipart songs, an orchestraís worth of instruments, and full-on concept albums often more ambitious than digestible. Last yearís Rehearsing My Choir was a mid-20th century, Prairie Home Companion-esque narrative based on, and featuring, the Friedbergersí 80-year-old grandmother. Musically, Matthew comes correct with the popprogrock boom-bang-pow, wacky windups, and alliterative ollie-ollie-oxen-free instrumental babble.

But if Matthew is the primary writer, penciller, inker, colorist, and, most importantly, editor of the Fiery Furnacesí epic comic-strip adventures, Eleanor is the wild-eyed protagonist. Sheís a beacon to guide listeners through her older brotherís sprawling musical badlands, throwing her sharp voice like a splash of arctic water straight into your mindís eye. You donít hear the story of the carefree protagonist of Blueberry Boatís "Spaniolated" being coerced into white slavery so much as you almost see it.

Eleanor typically handles lead vocals on Furnaces songs, with Matthew sporadically seizing the reins or engaging his sister in a point/counterpoint face-off. But mostly, she belts, shouts, and positions herself center stage, a bit of sibling rivalry to see who can dominate the music. Like the Furnaces records, Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School requires a significant investment of time and patience to come to terms with, maybe even more so. Absent Eleanorís bawdy, tawny presence, Matthew spends most of the record muttering to himself or someone barely within earshot.

On both Friedberger solo records the music swamps the mumbled lyrics and dominates the mix, the polar opposite of standard Furnaces procedure. "The main thing about [Holy Ghost] is the delay effect on the drum machine," Friedberger says. "Itís an LM-1 drum computer, the old one that Prince would use. The idea is itís a nice, normal proper drum machine getting happy, you know. Itís freaking out with the delay, and so itís just lost its shit, basically."

Despite the slightly impenetrable--or just hard to hear--words, Friedbergerís solo albums feature fewer whiplash compositional curves and may, oddly, be more palatable to Furnaces newcomers. But Friedberger stacks up so many tracks of studio-as-instrument tomfoolery--more on Holy Ghost than on Women--that Furnaces fans will still come away properly sated. "The Cross and the Switchblade" is a standout, mixing a suspenseful tickling-the-ivories interlude, the King Koopa theme music from Super Mario Brothers, and, taking the title very literally, the sonic illusion that the song itself is being sliced in half.

"Itís [the sound of] paper ripping and a blade pulled through paper," Friedberger says. "[And] the two slide guitars are heavily reverberated, the piano line crosses itself . . . and then the switchblade hits. And then thereís another little stupid thing in there--thereís an old tape edit. [Holy Ghost] is all little stupid things like that."

Made up of "stupid things" or not, Friedbergerís music is never less than florid; no one will ever accuse him of being an underachiever, playing nearly everything on Women/Holy Ghost by himself like Prince and his drum machine. Honking harmonicas, skipping stick work, woodwinds, chamberlains, and fuzz-guitar indigestion intersect on "Up the River," a rockiní ballad whose unusual elements just manage to overcome its inherent sappiness. "Big Bill Crib and His Ladies of the Desert" rumbles with Richter-scale bass-drum rolls and dinky, plinky piano. Cowbells clonk atop the bootylicious bass line that ruts though "Do You Like Blondes?" as synthesizers whistle and plummet like rocketing Fourth of July fireworks.

With so much going on instrumentally, itís somewhat of a surprise that Friedbergerís songwriting process is just the opposite of what you might expect. "A lot of people, I think, mumble along to a song and start saying something," he says. "I like to write the words first, and then add music."

The two new records are very different creatures sonically and thematically. Women is a collection of small-change women and work troubles set to skewed yet relatively accessible MOR pop. He sketches an enduring love-hate relationship between two friends that "Call each othersí busy signals, not getting through/ Desperate for the chance to get the last word out" on "Ruth Vs. Rachel." Holy Ghost jump-cuts between scenes in a dense narrative about a group of Americans looking to start a school to teach business-level Chinese, closer to the Saturday matinťe serials of Furnaces records like Blueberry Boat than Womenís intimate profiles.

The prolific Furnaces will return to the studio in December to record their next album, which Friedberger describes as "kind of í70s American rock, like Bob Dylanís Rolling Thunder, big pedal steel, no synthesizers, a lot of piano." Until then, theyíll tour, Friedberger will buy a ton of books he wonít find the time to read, and heíll adhere to his uneven songwriting schedule. "Maybe it turns out to be a song every five days, sometimes five songs a week," he says.

Right now, heís munching a bagel, inquiring as to what native Baltimoreans make of HBOís The Wire, and laughing at the ego involved in indie-rock demigods releasing superstar double albums and the potential commercial futility thereof. "Itís wrong to do this--you have to be like a movie star to do this kind of stuff," he cracks, self-depreciatingly considering that the cult he and his sister have spawned is strong enough that theyíre able to support themselves on ticket and CD sales. "[Ours] arenít the most beloved rock records."

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