The Fiery Furnaces are the most accessible and inscrutable band working today. You might not think there is much you can do to make three-minute blues-rock songs difficult, but this brother/sister duo muck things up beautifully with wobbly melodies, frigid analog-synth blasts and lyrics that go from personal travelogue to absurdist imagery at whim. To figure out Matt and Eleanor Friedberger's debut, Gallowsbird's Beak, we conscripted our sister Greta (seventeen; favorite album: Belle and Sebastian's Tigermilk) to listen to it and spill her guts. After all: who to understand the dynamic between a brother and sister better than a brother and sister?
RFT: So, dear sister, what did you think of Gallowsbird's Beak?
Greta Baranowski: I thought it was decent, not amazing. I thought it was like the White Stripes -- stripped down, but an old-fashioned [voice takes on tone of a KSHE DJ] "we rawk" sort of thing.
You kids don't know "stripped down"; let me tell you about Sebadoh someday. But anyway, what about all the synthesizers that they use?
It would be really inconsistent. Once in a while you get that techno thing [on "Leaky Tunnel" especially]. It was jarring. I hear you, but it still sounded like the White Stripes, only sillier.
Techno?! [Gathering composure] Anyway, are you sure that -- maybe on some subconscious level -- you're not comparing the Furnaces and the Stripes just because they're both (supposedly) brother/sister acts? They even have different genders singing.
I'm sure I am. But it's still true.
And that silliness is what separates them, anyway. I loved the lyrics; they're great surreal hooks on their own. How can you not be fascinated by Eleanor, who comes up with lines like "pierced my ears with a three-hole punch/ate twelve-dozen doughnuts for lunch?"
[Trying not to laugh] OK, that was pretty clever. Yeah, I'm going to start scribbling that on notebooks.
Here, try one from their next album, Blueberry Boat. Most of the songs are eight-minute "Bohemian Rhapsody" epics, but this is their funniest, most straightforward song ever. [Puts on "I Lost My Dog," about a pet that disappears and finds religion.]
What do you think people that you go to high school with would make of this?
It's not quite emo enough for my friends. It's not like Dashboard [Confessional]. I guess losing your dog is kinda emo, though.
Does listening to the Furnaces make you want to form a band with a relative?
You know, you do have that bass in your old room --
I haven't touched that in years! But then, Eleanor hadn't touched an instrument before Matt forced her to join the band. Got anything in your brain that can match the drunken blues of "South Is Only a Home"?
Maybe some clever lyrics, but I'm tone deaf.
And I'm out of practice.
We could cover the White Stripes --
Badly! And call ourselves the White Sucks -- oh, wait! Isn't that the Vines?
Leave the clever stuff to the Furnaces, please. -- Niles Baranowski
Over the years, Twangfest has dipped its toes into bracing indie-pop waters--the V-Roys, Walter Clevenger, Nadine, and Dolly Varden's Steve Dawson and Diane Christiansen come to mind -- but this year the festival takes the plunge with a Philadelphia band called the Bigger Lovers. Multitasking between the kinetic jangle of the dB's and Big Star and the terse psychedelica of R.E.M. and Game Theory, the band captures the complex, inexhaustible joys at the heart of that ever-durable genre: guitar- and harmony-based rock & roll.
Just as the Bigger Lovers emerged from the collapse of songwriters Bret Tobias' and Scott Jefferson's previous and mostly obscure bands, the Diane Linkletter Experience and Moped, they also emerged from the dissolution of the early '90s indie-rock wave, which Tobias calls the most "self-conscious rock movement ever." The band isn't about to deny the significance of Pavement or Sonic Youth or the Pixies, but the scene's descent into a kind of obsessively ironic mentalism, in which alienation is the coolest end in and of itself, closed off vast emotional spaces in the rock & roll landscape. "There came a time when I just said I don't give a shit anymore," Tobias recalls.
But if the Bigger Lovers ditched an all-too-easy indie-alienation affect, they've also been cornered by power-pop devotees, for whom "ba-ba-ba" backed choruses, criss-crossing harmonies and reverb-glazed guitar lines are the sonic egg creams of nirvana. The band's first two records, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Honey in the Hive, had a surfeit of those pleasures, but they also had a tough-hearted lyricism that pricked facile bubblegum fantasies. Tobias is more bemused than exasperated. "Sometimes I read reviews where it's like, 'Super-happy Bigger Lovers, with their new heavy pop-rock record! The new power-pop saviors!'"
For those power-pop geeks, the band's latest record, This Affair Never Happened... And Here Are Eleven Songs About It, should pose a problem or seven. Beginning with the frenzied, noisy kiss-off "You (You, You)," the album twists, scrapes and corrodes power-pop conventions, tossing off shiny guitar hooks to catch all the confusing nuances of imploding relationships. "I just could not believe what had passed," Tobias sings over a chiming dirge, "since last we had a laugh at one another's expense." On "You Don't Feel Anything At All," a blown-out vocal seethes over a lacerating rhythm section as the guitars fight to get the hell out of wherever the hell they are. The band didn't exactly set out to remake Sister Lovers, but the songs, for all their melodic pleasures, quiver with more than a little dissonance and distress. "This time around we made a conscious decision to let tape roll and see what happens," Tobias says, "and not necessarily tie up loose ends if they were there, just to give it a more spontaneous feel." -- Roy Kasten
Also at Twangfest...
The Redwalls sound an awful lot like the Beatles. Every article written about this Illinois quartet will contain some permutation of the above statement, and those articles are not completely wrong. But since most bands "kinda, sorta" sound like the Beatles anyway, what's the big deal? The boys in the Redwalls weren't even alive when John Lennon was shot, but they've nailed the rootsy, reverb-heavy sound of early rock & roll. Consider the irony: The Beatles learned about twang from Carl Perkins records in the '60s, and in 2004 some Midwestern teens have inherited the same sound, only filtered through four Liverpudlians. Twang has gone universal, and the Redwalls are here to bring it all back home. -- Christian Schaeffer
Grey De Lisle
Grey De Lisle's new record, The Graceful Ghost, transports the listener to a mysterious, timeless world of hard-wrought beauty. Unlike the majority of modern recording artists, De Lisle and her collaborators -- chiefly husband Murry Hammond of the Old 97's and producer Marvin Etzioni, once of the band Lone Justice -- played and sang all in one take, with the instruments bleeding into one another. Autoharp, acoustic guitar, stand-up bass and De Lisle's gentle, entrancing voice add resonance to the strange, sad stories of love lost, challenged and occasionally rewarded. De Lisle operates squarely in the American folk-music tradition but with a new creative spin. -- Steve Pick
We've all asked ourselves: What if the Replacements weren't from chilly old Minneapolis but were reared in the sunny climes of Austin, Texas? Grand Champeen has come to answer that question with a style that combines a certain sloppy bravado and a flat-picker's precision. When Grand Champeen played at the Gargoyle last year, the band treated the crowd to 45 minutes' worth of American rock & roll, sans pretension and avec good-time cheer. Every bar should have this band on its stage; livers would fail, but the spirit of American music would soar. -- Christian Schaeffer