Judging by the critical shit storms stirred up with each Fiery Furnaces' release, you'd think we were reliving the infamous furor occasioned by the 1913 première of Igor Stravinsky's dissonant The Rite of Spring. Back then, rioters tore apart the Paris theater where the ballet debuted, and the next day's newspapers declared imminent end-times. Maybe that's a reach outside the rock world, but when it comes to the music of the Fiery Furnaces, neutrality is rare.
The sibling duo of Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger have proven to be just as polarizing as they are prolific -- and that's saying something, with their fourth full-length in three years, Bitter Tea, expected in April. Meanwhile, there's also a 41-minute collection of B-sides: EP.
"If you don't like Blueberry Boat, I don't like you," wrote the EP reviewer at Pitchfork last year, tongue only partially in cheek. "It's no longer a matter of taste, other than the fact that I have good taste, whereas you, Fiery Furnaces-hater, do not."
Such critical brick-tossing has become de rigueur when it comes to the Furnaces, who admit that the passionate vehemence can exact a toll.
"It is upsetting to read a bad review. Or you see someone said this is one of the worst records of the year," Eleanor Friedberger says by phone from her Brooklyn home. "Sometimes it does make you think, 'Oh, maybe we should just do something that we think is going to please everyone,' but you never know what that's going to be."
The Furnaces have been lightning rods since their ambitious debut. Gallowsbird's Bark broke the Strokes' garage-rock stranglehold on New York's new music scene in 2003. The Furnaces pulled off this coup by adding blues, folk, music hall, and computer glitches to the disc's pop songs. Gallowsbird also embraced a kaleidoscopic narrative element absent from much of the über-hip NYC scene. To the Friedbergers, the stories meant as much as the music.
Just 10 months after Gallowsbird, the Furnaces upped the ante considerably with Blueberry Boat. Its sprawling, down-the-rabbit-hole, 77-minute musical collage is chock-full of funhouse pianos, spastic guitar bursts, myriad tempo changes, and mini-operas (Matthew's homage to The Who Sell Out). For those reliant on verse-verse-chorus -- and even some fans of Gallowsbird's shorter vignettes -- Blueberry Boat left them at sea. Many hailed the record as one of the most inventive albums in eons, while others were made apoplectic by the same kudos.
"Ultimately, this CD [Blueberry] conveys ideas and poses about music, rather than music itself, and thus will probably appeal to poseurs and critics and others for whom the 'idea' of something has as much appeal as the reality of the thing," wrote one Amazon.com reviewer.
Last October's Rehearsing My Choir only added fuel to the critical maelstrom. It's a shambolic, partially narrated musical memoir of their grandmother's Chicago. It features the Friedbergers' 83-year-old grandmother, Olga Sarantos, revisiting her youth and Eleanor channeling Sarantos' younger self. Rehearsing is as far as you can get from today's cookie-cutter "alternative" rock, but the insular nature of the oral history left many of the Furnaces' staunchest supporters scratching their heads.
Rebounding from that furor, Eleanor says that the upcoming Bitter Tea will be more user-friendly -- its 13 tracks are "self-contained" love songs.
"You can skip to track 4 and you're not missing anything," she says. "But it's a nice album at the same time, it all makes sense together...We tried to have songs that you can sing along with, and you don't have to memorize too much in order to do that."
A handful of the new songs will be featured on a tour targeting cities the Fiery Furnaces haven't yet visited. In the past, the uproar has been only slightly less fierce when it comes to the Furnaces' live shows -- straightforward renditions were eschewed, and sets were played as one long medley, portions of songs woven together and often played at Ramones double-time speed. This time around, however, the Friedbergers are opting for a simple two-guitar, no keys approach that will focus primarily on the first two records.
"Since we're playing all these new places," Eleanor says, "we're going to try and play straightforward and be as rock & roll-y as possible. It's going to be our Greatest Hits, if that's even possible."
But this is the Fiery Furnaces, and their "greatest hits" won't likely resemble any other band's. Which is good, because sometimes the venue just needs a good ransacking. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
The Fiery Furnaces play the Visulite on Tuesday, Feb. 14, at 9pm. The openers are deadboy & The Elephantmen, and tickets are $15 in advance or at the door. See www.visulite.com for details.