I think if you listen to music long enough, you develop something like a relationship with certain bands or artists. You're willing to follow them into whatever territory they wish to explore and will happily listen to everything they release even if the reviews have been awful. It goes beyond being something like “a fan.” I'm a “fan” of Kevin Smith's movies, but I don't rush out to see every new thing he does, especially when it gets critically reamed, like with Jersey Girl (which is not an awful movie, but that's a review for another day). No, with this “relationship”, you engage the band on a level as much intellectual as it is emotional, at once having an emotional “I like this or not” reaction as well as trying to figure out vague concepts like “what they are trying to say.” You're willing to indulge them a few missteps here or there because you have faith in their abilities when you might not even give another band a chance if you don't like their stuff on first listen. You find yourself saying or thinking things like “I love the band, but I'm not too big on such-and-such-release...” This is precisely how I feel about The Fiery Furnaces: I love them, but I'm not too big on Rehearsing My Choir or Matt Friedberger's solo albums.
Over the past three years the Furnaces have proven just as unpredictable as at their start, moving from 2007's excellent 70s inspired Widow City to 2008's dense, challenging “live” album Remember to the classicist rock/pop of last year's underrated I'm Going Away. Then came, with little coverage and even less fanfare, Take Me Round Again. In essence, this MP3-only release features covers/reworkings of songs from I'm Going Away done by siblings/main Furnaces Matt and Eleanor Friedberger. Since the band are famous for changing their songs drastically for live shows (something born out by Remember, which stitched together radically different takes of a single song more often than not), this release is neither a surprise nor a revelation. What it is, however, is enjoyable. Not amazingly enjoyable or occasionally enjoyable, states I vacillate between with their other releases. No, Take Me Round Again is just...enjoyable.
As it was recorded by the two siblings without their backing band as well as away from each other, it's even more stripped down than the I'm Going Away originals. Perhaps it's best to think of Eleanor's takes as “covers”, since the press for this album quotes her as saying something about long wanting to do an entire record of folk covers of Fiery Furnaces songs. And yes, her tracks here are mostly just played with an acoustic guitar for accompaniment. 'Cups + Punches' somehow retains its sense of groove and cadence in its new minimal instrumentation, as does 'Keep Me In The Dark.' Had someone handed you her half of Take Me Round Again and claimed it was demos for I'm Going Away, you'd believe them. Her half dozen tracks are consistently good but unsurprising, mostly making me wish she would go back and record some folk covers of older material.
Matthew, meanwhile, stays truer to the usual Furnaces modus operandi of skewing and stretching songs in new, different directions. On the press site for the album he says something about how he envisioned this as an “alternative version” of the album. As such, his half of the release is more interesting but not always successful—the same criticism could be leveled at the weaker moments of the Furnaces's entire catalogue, but I digress. Matthew's 'Drive To Dallas' is a short wank workout for keyboards and drum machines that sounds nothing like the original (I'm still not convinced it isn't some kind of joke), while his slurred, carefree 'Keep Me In The Dark' is both “slurred” and “carefree” in bad ways. But his White-Stripes-cover-band-ish take on the title track, and the fun off-beat solo piano (with some electric guitar toward the middle) of 'Staring At The Steeple', reveal that he is as much the obvious composing/instrument playing key to the Furnaces as well as, when he takes the mic, a surprisingly good, woefully underutilized vocalist.
Since Take Me Round Again is only available as a $10 download...since it's—depending on which Friedberger you ask—a cover or reworking of I'm Going Away...since it's inessential and only hardcore fans would care anyway...since it's pretty good but nothing that I feel particularly strongly about...Since all of these things are true, it's difficult for me to know how to conclude. “Take Me Round Again is a pretty good, interesting covers/reworkings collection but it will only interest the faithful and even at $10 it's inessential”? Yeah, that'll do.