10 Best Fiery Furnaces Songs
This week, Eleanor Friedberger releases her second solo album, ‘Personal Record,’ and though the Fiery Furnaces have only been on extended hiatus for two years, it seems they’ve faded from the memories of all but their most devoted fans. Is this the cost of making challenging, playful, emotionally complex and at times abrasive experimental rock music? Yes, probably. And it doesn’t help that Friedberger’s solo work is more welcoming to casual listeners. But as Eleanor’s solo career continues to blossom, the silver lining for Fiery Furnaces fans is that when she eventually reunites with her brother Matthew, the band will have a whole new group of interested listeners to either inspire or perplex. Over the course of six years, the pair released eight LPs — one a full-length compilation called ‘EP,’ another a polarizing set featuring the pair’s grandmother. Clearly, these Brooklyn natives excel at turning heads, and they relish making those heads continue to spin. Many dismiss the band as inaccessible, irreverent and pretentious, to which noted Furnaces supporter We Listen For You has some essential opinions. We have some opinions of our own, and what follows are our picks for the 10 Best Fiery Furnaces Songs.
‘Quay Car’ is one of two lengthy musical excursions from ‘Blueberry Boat’ that can stand as a gauntlet for those wishing to access the beloved album. It’s not a coincidence that ‘Quay Car’ begins both that album and our 10 Best Fiery Furnaces Songs list. Childlike in its playfulness while hitting tense and desperate moments, the track catches the pair running full speed with their head looking back. And while critics listening for the first time probably made up their minds and sealed the album’s fate before reaching the end of this 10-minute tune, ‘Quay Car’ is unforgettable song, even if it’s not always enjoyable.
‘Up In the North’
For those who don’t recall, there was a time that the Fiery Furnaces were mentioned in the same breath as the White Stripes. In hindsight, this shows just how wrong music writers can be, though the Furnaces’ debut LP, ‘Gallowsbird Bark,’ appealed to guitar-rock and indie fans for obvious reasons. ‘Up In the North,’ though, sounds like it could be at home on most Furnaces albums, which probably just means it’s great.
No. 8 on the 10 Best Fiery Furnaces Songs list is their most recognizable track, ‘Tropical-Iceland,’ which appeared in different versions on ‘Gallowsbird Bark’ and ‘EP.’ With its light, inconsequential tone, the latter version is almost sugary, but it nevertheless appeals to the imagination, thanks to clever turns of phrase and even a closing verse played backwards. It shows the band at their most accessible, and yet they remain endearingly anachronistic, especially by 2005 standards.
‘Teach Me Sweetheart’
The Fiery Furnaces are often described as enigmatic, and while that can be frustrating, it’s a real part of the listening experience. One of their most inexplicable songs is ‘Teach Me Sweetheart,’ a slow-building epic that hints at huge possibilities without ever getting past the buildup. The group seems more interested in destroying a classic than in creating one, and they deconstruct the tune’s pop potential before it can be fully realized. It’s frustrating but also inspiring — and possibly a better listen because of what it lacks.
Many called ‘Blueberry Boat’ inaccessible upon its release in 2004. ‘1917’ shows why these detractors are both right and wrong. The opening minutes are chaotic and harsh, with the tones sounding out of key and abrasive, like an alarm. The crashing cymbals take the situation to comical heights. But ‘1917’ features a brilliant contrasting second half that pairs piano and some sort of melodica or harmonium with Friedberger’s arm-around-your-shoulder vocals. Juxtaposed with the song’s opening, the sweetness is like a revelation, and both halves need each other to work fully.
‘Evergreen,’ originally a b-side to the ‘Single Again’ single and later offered up on ‘EP,’ finds Eleanor Friedberger letting her voice do the kind of emoting her lyrics sometimes obscure. The song is about someone waiting for their time to come and always being ready, despite constant misfortune. It’s both optimistic and sad as all hell, and Friedberger sings the weepy words like she is in tears. Matthew gets his moments as well, delivering a couple of guitar solos. The final one sounds like it’s performed on a nylon-string garage-sale find, and that seems appropriate, given the plight of the song’s narrator. Matthew gives the classical guitar a moment to fulfill it’s purpose — or maybe we’re reading too much into that.
‘Here Comes the Summer’
Like ‘Evergreen,’ ‘Here Come’s the Summer’ was also a b-side to ‘Single Again,’ and it later popped up on ‘EP.’ The single was commissioned by the Furnaces’ label after ‘Blueberry Boat’ was deemed too difficult for most listeners, and the band answered the call with a handful of smart and infectious stand-alones, remarkably proving themselves just as capable of unpredictable and adventurous recording as they were of delivering straight-ahead, timeless pop songs. ‘Here Comes the Summer’ might be their most perfectly constructed example of the latter.
‘Benton Harbor Blues’
The Fiery Furnaces and their internal contradiction — over and over, we see this theme pop up, both in terms of the conflict at the heart of the songwriting and the typical rivalry you’d expect from two siblings. On ‘Benton Harbor Blues,’ it’s found in interplay between the lyrics and the music. The hopping keys, up-strummed guitar and occasional organ inflections all suggest a walk through the park on the first day of summer, while Eleanor delivers direct and downtrodden words. Even her humorous nod to a bail-bondsman doesn’t help the duo joke its way out of this, the breeziest heartbreaker in recent memory.
‘Paw Paw Tree’
The Fiery Furnaces’ brother-sister relationship is part of every conversation about the band, but it’s rarely the focus. On ‘Paw Paw Tree,’ the next entry on our Best Fiery Furnaces Songs list, it sounds like the siblings are vying for attention, Eleanor singing a sturdy and timeless melody, Matthew getting noisy with his electric guitar, both crying “look at me” in their own ways. So many of the band’s songs revolve around their parts clashing and then finding harmony. Who better to make music that hits these themes than a brother and a sister that grew up to work together, create music together and ultimately trust each other?
‘Blueberry Boat’ is the Fiery Furnaces’ definitive song. Difficult and melodic, smart and absurd, funny and horrifying, it’s a really long song that could easily be a lot of shorter ones. It finds the Friedbergers initially in opposition and then finding harmony, and if the climactic fight scene doesn’t confuse, thrill and amuse you, you’re listening to the wrong album by the wrong band, and you’re totally missing out.