I’ve heard people yell a lot of things during silent moments at rock shows. “Marry me!” (To Kate Nash, who quipped, “Have you even met my dad?”) “Do me!” (To Natalie Merchant, who launched into a lecture about how to address women respectfully.) “Freebird!” (Har de har har.) And what was yelled at the Fiery Furnaces? “Say us a poem!”
“I’ll sing you a song,” replied frontwoman Eleanor Friedberger. “That will be better.”
Sing isn’t the word everyone would use to describe what Friedberger does in the Fiery Furnaces. Her vocalizing might more accurately be described as declaiming. On record, this sounds something like indie-rock Beat poetry. Live, I was surprised to discover, Friedberger incants her lyrics looking and sounding a lot like Chrissie Hynde in “Precious” mode—if “Precious” were the kind of song apt to inspire someone to shout, “Say us a poem!”
Not having too closely followed the Furnaces’ career, I was surprised to see that their stage setup at the Turf Club on Saturday night did not include a keyboard instrument of any kind. Their breakout album Bitter Tea (2006) is marked by an omnipresent harpsichord, and their other albums have featured any number of eccentric instruments and sonic experiments. On this tour, though, their lineup is lean and mean: Eleanor Friedberger sings (and dabbles in drumming), her brother Matthew plays electric guitar, Bob D’Amico earnestly drums, and Jason Loewenstein plays bass.
The Friedbergers are originally from Illinois, but the Furnaces formed in Brooklyn and the band bears the hallmarks of the indie-rock Brooklyn Sound: brainy, precise arrangements that stop, start, reverse, break apart, and then sometimes come back together again. It’s not a sound that lends itself well to improvising or jamming, and at the Turf Club Matthew Friedberger kept an eye trained fiercely on his rhythm section so as to steer them through the complex changes in his songs. He has remarkable dexterity on the fretboard, but there were no balls-out solos: everything was in its place.
Truth be told, I’m not a huge fan of the Fiery Furnaces, nor of the microgenre they represent. I admire the Brooklyn bands’ musicianship and find their records fascinating, but I generally find the music too sterile to connect with emotionally. I’ve heard, though, that one really needs to see those bands live to “get it,” and having seen the Furnaces I certainly “get” something more than I did previously. The 70s are the influential-decade-of-the-moment, and the Fiery Furnaces’ live set helped me understand how that decade managed to contain both Pink Floyd and Patti Smith.
I also enjoyed opener Cryptacize, a band connected to the Fiery Furnaces by Deerhoof—with whom the Furnaces have toured and to whose music Crytptacize’s Chris Cohen has contributed. Cryptacize’s music contains its share of avant-indie tics, but it also features pretty melodies made prettier by the singing of Nedelle Torrisi. Like Magnetic Fields vocalists Claudia Gonson and Shirley Simms, Torrisi hews to the scripted melody as precisely as a MIDI synthesizer; as with Gonson and Simms, the technique lends Torrisi’s voice a quality of touching naïveté. It occurred to me, though, that anyone who could sit through the tattooing of a broad armband just below her elbow is tougher than she might sound. “And,” noted my girlfriend when I pointed the tattoo out to her, “you don’t get to be drunk for that, either!”