Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Fiery Furnaces- Remember

Going to see a band live can sometimes just be an excuse to brag. So many times a band's live incarnation consists solely of a shuffled selection of songs from their albums, played in exactly the same way. This isn't automatically a bad way to do things, since the intimacy of most live shows combined with knowing tour money is mostly responsible for bands staying afloat makes you feel good about the arrangement. I try not to let the whole 'star power' thing affect me, but I do sometimes have those moments where I'm watching a band and I think "holy crap, they're right there!!" So, you go just to say you went in some vain attempt to impress others.

However, the other ways of doing a live show interest me much more. Many bands are unwilling or unable to utilize the musical format--and make no mistake, a concert is a different format in the same way that singles, EPs, albums, double albums, and box sets are different formats--but those that do make a live show a precious, memorable, and once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. With these concerts, you aren't going just to say you went. You're going to see and hear something entirely unique. There are many ways to reward a live audience with something substantial. For starters, bands can go the jam band/jazz-route and add improvisation to their songs, often times segueing directly into and out of very different songs. They can re-arrange their songs for the stage, turning originals and cover songs inside out. They can interact with the audience by taking requests or bantering between (or during!!) songs. They can perform medleys, combining their songs into an epic mass made up of small snippets of different material. And there's probably a few dozen other ways to make live shows unique that I'm not thinking of, including varying combinations of the above.

The Fiery Furnaces are well known for seizing the advantage of a live setting. Their approach is two of the above--to perform re-arranged versions of their songs and/or to perform medleys of songs. This ensures that every show you see of their's is unique, because from tour to tour they usually have a different band as well as a whole new set of songs to pull apart in addition to re-arranged versions of old nuggets. You go into a Fiery Furnaces show not really knowing what to expect, whether it be burning garage rock, scintillating prog, lively salsa/tropicalia, or borderline-music hall ditties.

Remember represents a step further from their live shows, utilizing 3 years worth of material to craft a 51-track monstrosity that, in the course of a single song, might use two or more different versions of said song. This makes the whole package a fascinating, unwieldy beast that ought to bear the disclaimer "For Fans Only" instead of the "Do not attempt to listen to all at once" that it does. It is funny to think of someone who wants to get into the band thinking a live album made up of album highlights is the best way to go, and having their brain cells fried by the music within. Anyway, it is probably good advice to take these two discs in chunks, so bear that in mind.

Remember also bears the distinction of going the furthest into the rapid fire switches of tempo, mood, and texture that have characterized most of what people hate and love in the Fiery Furnaces. 'Hyperactive prog rock' is something I've heard a lot about this band, but it's not until Remember that I really felt it was apt, since now the songs--being made up of two or more different versions--are careening ever more rapidly. The impression an initial listen leaves you with is that this album is exhausting in its quixotic medleys, breakneck changes, and unrelenting pace. With time, though, Remember reveals itself for what it is: an inverted greatest hits album.

I know that doesn't make sense, but let me explain. See, 'Greatest Hits' packages are not designed for fans. They're designed to pull in casual listeners with a set of the band's best, most appealing songs, as if someone were pulling a $5 bill connected to fishing string down the sidewalk. Remember is unquestionably for the fans, and rather than featuring a set of the band's most appealing songs taken from studio albums, it features completely different versions of those songs taken from live shows. Perhaps it's best to think of this as a remix album combined with a live album combined with a greatest hits.

Even if you're a hardcore fan who owns all their stuff, Remember may as well not have any previously released songs because of how little resemblance these songs bear to their studio counterparts. As it's made up of songs from all of their albums (disappointingly, none of Matt Friedberger's solo material shows up, though his few turns on the mic are treats), even if you only like certain releases from the band, you'll be constantly surprised at the new transformations of songs you thought you hated. Personally I think the album is perfect for people who never got into Rehearsing My Choir because the renditions of its songs are pretty incredible (and assuming you couldn't stand their Grandmother's voice, you'll be happy to know that she's nowhere to be found here).

The only problem with Remember is that there isn't enough breathing space. It is a visceral rush when an album never lets up but it doesn't make for an appealing listen you want to hear over and over. I would definitely like to hear a straight-up release of a single live show from the Fiery Furnaces because the flow of a concert is missing here. Your mileage may vary, but I want some release from the tension every so often. And coming from a band that secretly has some really great ballads and mellow songs up their sleeves, it's a bit of a let down when they bulldoze through 'Birdie Brain' and 'Waiting To Know You.' At the very least, they could have transformed other songs into more mellow and ballad-like forms.

As usual with The Fiery Furnaces, we've been given what the band thinks we need and not what we want. Remember is another fascinating, challenging, and rewarding album from a band with no shortage of fascinating, challenging, and rewarding music. Aside from a strict warning for non-fans to stay away, my only caveat emptor to offer about this release is that you go in with an open mind and try to understand what the band is doing rather than dwell on what you think they're doing wrong. Even if Remember isn't the band's best work and can only be digested in chunks, it's still an essential part of their discography and a veritable Rosetta's Stone for understanding their live approach.

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