Many prolific artists, though ingenious, tend to produce a lot of crap. This seems to be a disease that strikes all hyper-fertile imaginations, regardless of media (Woody Allen for one, Prince for another), and it only gets worse when said artist is left to his or her own devices. Sometimes they just need someone to say, “Hey dude, maybe we need to work on that one a little more.” That’s certainly what needs to be said to Matthew Freidberger, the brother-half and de facto producer-cum-dictator of the Fiery Furnaces.
Widow City, the sixth album in only four years from the alternately brilliant and tiresome brother-sister duo, is another example of just how uncomfortably true this is. It’s a shame, too, because I think if the Friedbergers (Eleanor is the other member) slowed down a bit and worked on an album for longer than a month or so, they may be able to match or maybe even top 2004’s Blueberry Boat (and, for the record, I consider Blueberry Boat among the top five records of the decade). This is a band that is as consistently brave and interesting as any making music right now, so it sucks to just watch them vomit material into the consumer ether without even bothering to polish it.
Good news: Despite all this, Widow City still thrills, and thrills often. There are also some notable divergences from previous releases, the most immediately noticeable of which is the stronger rock flavor. Take the Led Zeppelin-influenced “Navy Nurse,” which is about as close to a straight up rock ‘n’ roll barnstomper as the Fiery Furnaces have gotten since Gallowsbird’s Bark in 2003. The other interesting shift here is in the songwriting, which is as wonderfully batshit as ever but here feels a lot less manic. The Furnaces’ bread and butter has always been those jarring mid-song tempo/melody changes, but on Widow City these are mostly surrendered in favor of simpler, more economical structures (see the wonderful “My Egyptian Grammar,” which flaunts Matthew at his most effortlessly melodic). This makes perfect sense, because ultimately Widow City is a rock ‘n’ roll album, pure and simple.
“The Philadelphia Grand Jury” is a nice introduction to this altered sound, which immediately pairs a fairly standard pop-rock progression with what will turn out to be Matthew’s album-long obsession with his new Chamberlin (see the recurring harp motif that will provide a sort of musical through-line throughout the album). The Chamberlin is used here as a way to synthesize and replicate strings, which I’m sure in less delicate hands would turn out horribly stale, but the way Friedberger uses it to piggyback the melody on this track is just another document on how endlessly inventive he is vis-a-vis a song’s construction.
Eleanor, as usual, plays the foil to her brother’s sonic villainy. It’s easy to gloss over how important she is to the Fiery Furnaces, especially when you already know that Matthew writes and arranges virtually all their material. Fact is, a song like “Wicker Whatnots,” with its mutant blues cloaked in gravel and nails, is disorienting, even boring, without her vocal guidance (and anyone who doesn’t believe me should look no further than Matthew’s solo double-album, Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School, from last year). Only Eleanor can drop “pomegranates” in a lyric and not have it sound like eighth-grade student poetry. “Restorative Beer,” on the other hand, is the only Fiery Furnaces song I’ve ever heard where her extremely limited vocal range (and I’m being polite here) is an issue. How this track ever found its way past a B-side and onto the actual full-length is beyond me, but here it is, with Eleanor doing things that her voice has no right even trying.
“Restorative Beer” isn’t Widow City‘s only regrettable moment. “Clear Signal from Cairo” is an unfortunate preface to the magical “My Egyptian Grammar,” shifting aimlessly for about six-plus minutes while not once finding a single interesting melody or idea. This is what Blueberry Boat would sound like if it was made by the Killers, and — going back to my original thesis here — it speaks to what has become the only real weakness for the Friedbergers: They don’t self-edit. It’s a bizarre criticism, I know, but sometimes a band or artist, no matter how brilliant, can be too prolific. Nevertheless, and this speaks to the undeniable power and intelligence of Matthew Friedberger’s songwriting, Widow City is a fascinating album. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s more fascinating than it is listenable.