Fiery Furnaces w/Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, the Fitness

Fri Jan 23, Graceland, 9:30 pm, $8 (all ages).

I start my phone call to Matthew Friedberger, half of smarty-pants indie pop siblings the Fiery Furnaces, with a little honesty. I tell him I saw the band play in New York a couple of months ago, and walked away unsure how I felt about them. After all, their music flew all over the place--one minute it was scratched up all arty with jagged keyboards cascading around frontwoman Eleanor Friedberger's beautifully low-pitched vocals, and the next it became bubbly and childlike, the occasional loose blues riffs replaced with flighty balladry. It wasn't until I returned home and gave their recent CD, Gallowsbird's Bark, a few spins that I realized the band's roller-coastery, twisty-twirly aesthetic adds nuance to the music rather than detracts from it. Their Rough Trade debut is a pastiche of jangly, off-kilter pop and noisy, keyboard- and guitar-layered ballads. Their bright chameleon sound changes colors between tracks, strung together with Eleanor's voice, her rambling, witty observances, and her brother's inventive arrangements (birds chirp through "Tropical Iceland," and "We Got Back the Plague" is accented with the sound of wood blocks, inspired by field recordings of chain gang songs). Their unusual creation may be a spiky pill to swallow, but it's worth the effort; appreciation for the quirky, upbeat band has appeared in such diverse publications as Rolling Stone, the New York Times, Elle, the Los Angeles Times, and Mojo, which called Bark "an oddball masterpiece."

In response to my opening comment, Matthew laughs and says, "We have very short attention spans. I don't know if we're interesting enough to be confusing, but we do just enough different things to at least inspire ambiguity."

From there, he speaks at length about music, from his attempts to make certain tracks "as hokey as possible," to how cool a Hula-Hoop sounds, to his passion for '60s pop, all of which gets filtered into their "broken toy sound." "We tried to make these simple songs not as dull as they could be," he says. "That's why you have to think of different silly ways to pull them over."

The Friedbergers grew up in Chicago, where, if you believe the droll press kit, they fought like feral cats and Labradors, with Eleanor "constantly ridiculed in the crudest and least interesting way by her brother Matthew" until she was finally invited to play music with him. Matthew remembers the less bickery times, such as pounding on a Lowrey organ in his grandparents' house. "My grandma was a choir director," he says. "I'd go down in her basement and play a few notes and [the organ] would make an impressive noise. It was really mesmerizing."

Matthew adds that his grandmother is still a "real musician" as well as the band's harshest critic. "The extended family is very pleased. [My grandma] is the only one who's more critical," he admits. "She's asked Eleanor, 'Would you like to have some singing lessons?' And she says things to me like, 'This part is boring.'"

Matthew hopes to alleviate familial concern this summer, when they plan on recording another album (their third; they just put a second record, Blueberry Boat, to bed) that also extends along bloodlines, with Eleanor singing duets with their grandmother. "The lyrics will be Eleanor singing the young person's hopes," Matthew says, "and our grandmother sings the older person's disappointments, what really happened. My favorite song so far is one where Eleanor sings about a sweetheart who marries someone else and she has to play the organ at his wedding. And then my grandmother sings the part where time goes on and she plays the organ at this guy's funeral, and reflects back on it and the music. There's a piece of music [in the song] that they play at a Greek Orthodox funeral, in addition to the stuff you'd expect to hear. [Overall], it's a nice little family thing."

The Fiery Furnaces are more than a "nice little family thing," although things might get too incestuous. "My cousin sang songs about pro wresting a long time ago. Really nice," Matthew says sarcastically. "One day maybe we can stick that on as a hidden song."

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