The cover of The Fiery Furnaces’ fifth album, Widow City, is by far their coolest to date. Eleanor Friedberger stands, stylishly, against a pink backdrop, tugging at her necklace, with the track names printed in a neat stack. These traditional conventions—photo of the artist, track names—on the front of the album could indicate a sort of adherence to traditionalism from the band itself. This far into the Friedbergers’ career, that would likely be the least expected turn of events from this strange, progressive and constantly shifting brother-sister duo. So, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that Widow City is by no means traditional or conventional, save for the traditions and conventions of a Fiery Furnaces album.
Widow City is neither the band’s most or least accessible album, the former title going to EP or Gallowsbird’s Bark while the latter is most certainly the grandma-narrated Rehearsing My Choir. This latest effort, rather, seems to jaunt back and forth between their catchiest and most noodly and difficult work, and without much of a break, as each song bleeds into one another, which can account for some truly odd jumps in style and sound. Keeping in mind that this is a Fiery Furnaces album, however, that’s nothing altogether too out of the ordinary, and more importantly, Widow City is quite good.
The tone of the album is set early with “The Philadelphia Grand Jury,” a seven minute prog-funk epic that displays both the Friedbergers’ most melodic and most bizarre tendencies mere measures from one another. It’s a fractional mock up of the course of the rest of the album, which is as erratic as it is fun. “Duplexes of the Dead” is a pretty straightforward song by the Fiery Furnaces’ standards, as is “Automatic Husband,” to a certain degree, only two minutes long and rocking hard during the chorus’ four chord breakdown, though the spoken word breaks do make it something of a typically bizarre construction. In “Ex-Guru,” the duo throws noisy rock and Beefheart-ian exercises by the wayside for more of a Beck-like funk-pop, which works out to be a rather delightful highlight.
The odd, cartoonish samples in “The Old Hag is Sleeping” are fun and curiously catchy, though the melody itself is both accessible and memorable enough that I may find myself bopping along to it sometime tomorrow, unexpectedly. The same can also be said of “Japanese Slippers,” though its goofball stomp wears out its welcome surprisingly quickly. The dirty bassline in “Navy Nurse” makes up for that quickly, however, and the Led Zeppelin-like riffage makes it the most badass song on this set, if not their entire catalog, and surely loses none of its swagger with the entrance of the lighter electric piano sounds.
While there are always plenty of surprises on a Fiery Furnaces record, they have finally settled into a groove with Widow City in which their melodic path has neither gone out of control nor gotten boring. As I said, it’s quite good. It’s not the album that will convert any of the uninitiated, but truth be told, those who haven’t been won over by their hyperactive prog pop by now probably never will. The rest of us will just have to enjoy being an elite clique…or a bunch of pretentious geeks, I’m good either way.
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.