The Fiery Furnaces come to town a few days prior to the official release of Widow City, their first album for the venerable Chicago independent label Thrill Jockey. The move to Thrill Jockey makes sense on a couple levels. First, although brother-sister bandleaders Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger are associated with Brooklyn's fecund indie scene, they hail from the Chicago suburbs. But more important, for the past 15 years Thrill Jockey has supported the kind of sui generis rock music at which the Friedbergers excel. That's the equivalent of a couple lifetimes in an indie world that's obsessed with novelty.
Acknowledging a debt to the Thrill Jockey roster, the Friedbergers tapped John McEntire of Tortoise, the act that gave the label an international scope, as their producer for Widow City. Matthew Friedberger recently told Billboard that the CD "is just meant to be a huge hit-type record. We tried to use...playing styles from past 'huge hits' from the early and mid'70s."
And frankly, I have no idea if he was being serious. This is the same brother-sister team that let the autobiographical recitative of their 80-something grandmother form the narrative backbone of the almost too demanding Rehearsing My Choir. So trying to make an accessible "hit" record might very well be a fascinating game to them. And, hey, "Ex Guru," the pumping little electronic disco thing from Widow City they've put up on MySpace, does feature a husky vocal by Eleanor that recalls throwaway pop belters like the late Laura Branigan.
But I can't imagine the Fiery Furnaces playing it that straight on disc or in concert. Their love of the odd musical detour is too great. It's what defines them. The cheesy synthesizer squiggle that clashes with what first seemed to be a simply strummed folk-rock progression. The loopy music-hall piano that simultaneously induces vertigo and aural nostalgia. The thick application of sonic sludge that turns a bouncy dance-pop tune into a grungy stab at sweetness. Those are the kinds of eccentric gestures that set the Fiery Furnaces apart from their indie peers. Not to mention make them worthy of Thrill Jockey's daunting creative legacy