The Fiery Furnaces have become one of the most divisive bands of the past five years, based largely on the grand ambitions of a few rogue albums. Their most infamous trip into arty weirdness, 2005’s Rehearsing My Choir, found the Friedberger siblings recruiting their grandmother to narrate a rock opera, and their 2004 opus Blueberry Boat has an even split between fierce devotees and jaded naysayers. But by and large, the band, though setting some lofty artistic goals for themselves, have more moments of melody and accessibility than weirdness for weird’s sake. Debut Gallowsbird’s Bark, my personal favorite, is glorious, Beefheart-meets-Mutantes exotic blooze, while Bitter Tea merely paints some strange touches atop some otherwise catchy tunes. They take chances, certainly, but the group writes a better tune than they’re often given credit for.
With I’m Going Away, their eighth album overall, The Fiery Furnaces make a point of showing off their hooks with an album that stands as their most accessible since Gallowsbird’s Bark. There are few, if any, mid-song tempo or time signature shifts to speak of. There are no backward vocals, no third party narrations, just 12 solid, bluesy rock songs. This may come as a surprise to some, but it shouldn’t. After all, they’ve done this sort of thing before. It’s just that they’re just not the kind of band that cares to sit still for too long. Their artistic pendulum has merely swung back to simplicity and directness, and it’s an approach that serves them well.
The Furnaces, now with bass player Jason Loewenstein and drummer Robert D’Amico in tow, kick off the album with the title track, channeling Delta blues through fuzzboxes with an ornery vigor. It’s exciting to hear, actually, finding the band at their most raw and direct once again. Meanwhile, “Drive To Dallas,” a piano-driven ballad, finds the Friedbergers in a subtle, subdued mood. It’s essentially the inverse of the song that precedes it, which is an interesting pairing to start the album. The remaining ten songs find a comfortable home somewhere between these two extremes, yet the peaks only seem to get higher from there, from the soulful “The End Is Near,” to the censor-baiting “she’s gonna get me folked up” refrain in awesome stomper “Charmagne Champagne.” “Cut the Cake” is a wonderful pop song, which finds Matthew adding an infectious “how could it be true?” chorus response to Eleanor’s verses. And “Staring at the Steeple” is a sexy and badass track with one of the slinkiest riffs Matt Friedberger has ever written.
By the next time The Fiery Furnaces make their way to the studio, they may take another left turn and pull out something entirely different, probably ambitious, and almost definitely unique. But as albums like I’m Going Away can show, they can write a great hook with the rest of them. So, get used to the idea: The Fiery Furnaces are a great pop group.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.