Album Review: The Fiery Furnaces – I’m Going Away

[Thrill Jockey; 2009]

It’s been two years since the Fiery Furnaces’ last studio album. Considering they’ve released (at least) one LP per year since Gallowsbird’s Bark in 2003 through their 2007 effort Widow City, not to mention brother Matt’s solo record(s)… it feels like it’s been a while. It sets the mind to wonder what exactly the siblings Friedberger could have been up to all this time. The answer is a bit surprising: I’m Going Away, their sixth LP proper, is a straightforward, concise record that plays directly to all the band’s classic rock and pop sensibilities. No shit.

As a band who through five albums have built their reputation on being charmingly erratic, so much so that the surprises on their last LP hardly came off as such, it’s refreshing to hear the Friedbergers play it so straight. For perhaps the first time on record (or at least, since their debut), the Fiery Furnaces sound like a real-live band rather than two like-minded people holed up in a studio with too many synthesizers. And it makes sense–I’m Going Away marks the second album that touring members Bob D’Amico and Jason Lowenstein (drums and bass, respectively) have been a part of, and as a result, the musicianship here is the strongest it’s ever been on a Furnaces album. Matt sticks mainly to piano and guitar, offering some wonderful theatrics on both without veering into virtuosity, and Eleanor’s knack for improving as a vocalist with every record the band puts out holds here.

What may disappoint some fans, though, is that the band almost entirely drops their trademark left-hand turns, detours and funny noises in favor of a more classicist approach than we’ve seen in their history. “Focused” is hardly a word that comes to mind with The Fiery Furnaces, but here it’s the key term. That’s both a blessing as a curse, because at their best, Matt and Eleanor’s tricks can warp what is already great material into something truly remarkable (Blueberry Boat), while at their worst, the zanier ideas can completely obliterate the song craft (Rehearsing My Choir). However, it’s really hard to complain when you’re dealing with songs as fine as they’ve delivered here. No, there’s not a synthesizer to be found, but the trademark vitality and playfulness are as there as ever. From the brief and skronky title track through the careening rock and roll of closer “Take Me Round Again,” there’s nary a misstep, and melodies and choruses that will stick in your head for days. Lending backing vocals on most tracks, Matt also returns to the microphone, who’s more laid back style provides perfect compliment to Eleanor’s more authoritative delivery—a trick they haven’t taken proper advantage of for three albums now.

There’s always been evidence in the Fiery Furnaces’ music that the Friedbergers are truly students of classic rock and pop music, from the windmilling Who-isms of something like “Chris Michaels” and Matt’s Lou Reed via Dr. Seuss guitar playing to the tongue-twisting, Dylan-esque wordplay that characterizes much of their work. What ultimately makes this album so satisfying is that these instincts are fully fleshed out, rather than tossed into a blender with a hundred other ideas, and in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the distinct voice they’ve developed over the past decade. So whether or not I’m Going Away is merely a stopgap before another shape-shifting opus, The Fiery Furnaces have nonetheless delivered an accessible and endlessly enjoyable record that ought to stand as one of their most memorable efforts.