Graded on a Curve:
The Fiery Furnaces,
EP

Leave it to the playful brother and sister team who make up (made up? They’ve been on hiatus since 2011) The Fiery Furnaces to choose the title EP for a full LP. Their perky and sometimes difficult but always diversified sound will grab hold of you, primarily because they have a knack for writing impossibly catchy melodies that brother Matthew Friedberger always manages to lively up in miraculously captivating ways, via some very quirky instrumentation that is as constantly surprising as it is totally original. Meanwhile, sister Eleanor adds lovely but tough vocals and always interesting lyrics.

Most of the Fiery Furnace’s LPs are tough but rewarding listens, but 2005’s EP isn’t one of them. With two exceptions, the songs are lovely and straight-ahead pop tunes enlivened by brother Matthew’s always intriguing musical backdrops. “Here Comes the Summer,” for example, features, in addition to a piano, one very distorted guitar, as well as a blurting something or other—it could just be some gadget to further distort the guitar—and will thrill you with its loveliness. The similarly captivating “Evergreen” is one of the most deliriously delightful songs I’ve heard in a while, thanks to Eleanor’s thrilling vocals, some great piano, one unholy cool distorted guitar solo, and a melody that is guaranteed to win you over. Meanwhile, opener “Single Again” is all synthesizer blurt and momentum, in which Eleanor’s disturbing lyrics about being abused by a boyfriend/spouse offer a dark contrast to the song’s upbeat tempo.

“Tropical-Iceland” is all distortion directed towards a melody that is impossibly catchy, and the best song I’ve heard in a while. I don’t know how Matthew Friedberger is producing those noises: synthesizer or guitar or synthesized guitar, or who knows; all that really matters is they’re strange as tropical Iceland itself. Meanwhile, “Duffer St. George” offers a similarly confounding array of instrumentation, and starts off as a pop tune before it goes hard rock on your ass, only to grow contemplative for a moment before Eleanor repeats, “Duffer St. George/And I don’t care/Duffer St. George/And I don’t… care” to the accompaniment of woodwinds.

Brother Matthew sings on the synthesizer and drum-heavy “Sing for Me,” and despite its lovely instrumentation I’m not crazy about it; it sounds like a second-rate Grandaddy song to me. It’s too repetitive for my tastes, and not even the guitar that comes in later can save it. “Cousin Chris” features some dissonant piano, some straightforward guitar work, and Matthew on vocals, and seems to be going down the same road until the song suddenly transmogrifies into a Beatlesque sing-song on which both Matthew and Eleanor sing. I don’t know what to say except that it grows on you, and packs a hell of a lot into four plus minutes, including a flute, some faux-Indian guitar, and some truly innovative drumming. “Sweet Spots” is a racing lark of a song and a wonder to behold; the synthesizers are melodious, Eleanor tells an interesting story about who knows what while she provides her own echoing backing vocals, making for a complex lead up to one very, very ferocious guitar solo. I wish Matthew played the thing more often, because he makes a formidable noise.

On “Smelling Cigarettes” and “Sullivan’s Social Club” the Fiery Furnaces construct multi-part little symphonies of the sort I’ve never liked since the first time I heard “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Both songs are returns to the more thematically complex songs on 2004’s Blueberry Boat, and both owe a debt to both the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” and the more complex songs of Brian Wilson. On “Smelling Cigarettes,” which opens with a simple piano figure, Eleanor tells a funny story about her foot getting run over by a billboard truck. Then the tempo picks up and she’s drunk and shouting at a guy who aims to key his ex-wife’s Camry. And on it goes, from fast to slow and back again, with the melody varying along with the instrumentation, and while it’s not a bad song (the ending is actually catchy) I infinitely prefer the shimmering pop simplicity of “Here Comes the Summer” and “Tropical Iceland.”

As for “Sullivan’s Social Club,” it’s instrumentation is weird and all over the place, while Eleanor’s vocals have an echo on them. That said, it’s much more of a piece than “Smelling Cigarettes,” although it too shifts tempo and melody and just plain sounds too damned busy for my ears. It’s like four songs in one, and I prefer to hear only one song for my money, although I’ve made the occasional exception, “Stairway to Heaven” being the most notable of them. I do like Matthew’s brief segue into guitar noise, the piano has a nice stomp to it, and those synth squiggles have an addictive quality. But once again, I’ll take their shorter and more straightforward tunes any day.

The band retreated from simplicity back to ornate song structures on 2005 follow-up Rehearsing My Choir, which is as unique an LP as you’ll ever hope to hear. No one can accuse the Fiery Furnaces of lacking in ambition, or of being afraid to take big risks. Rehearsing My Choir was a concept LP featuring the siblings’ grandmother, Olga Sarantos. Meanwhile, they also released a “silent album” in book form, as well as a “democ-rock” project that allowed fans to vote on the band’s creative process.

In short, there’s nothing they won’t try, and while ambition and innovation are both good things, I can’t help but feel they’ve kept their best work simple and to the point (see such tunes as “Duplexes of the Dead” and “My Egyptian Grammar” off 2007’s Widow City, or “Even in the Rain” from 2009’s I’m Going Away, for example). I don’t want a silent album or a concept album about the Friedberger’s grandmother, although I’m sure she’s a lovely person. I want catchy and instrumentally innovative tunes that don’t take multiple U-turns and make me happy. I want EP, in other words, even if it is an LP.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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