Harvey Philip Spector might have fallen in love with Veronica Yvette Bennett on some late night in a recording studio, sometime around 1962. There were probably cigarettes smoked and fleeting glances exchanged. Most tempting to imagine is the two coming together over the music they made—lovely, cavernous music that would fill a classical concert hall as well as it filled the narrow stalls of high school girls’ bathrooms. Eleanor and Matt Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces make lovely music, too, but we’ll get back to them later.
Harvey is producer-guru Phil Spector, and Veronica is Ronnie Bennett, best known for leading the girl group that took the diminutive form of her first name: the Ronettes. Under that moniker, Spector and the girls recorded a string of hits inaugurated by the epochal drum intro of “Be My Baby,” but eventually fizzled out by 1966. Ronnie was a dilettantish amateur buoyed by the feverish enthusiasm of her patron to spectacular heights.
To her wavering, narrow tones, Spector set his overstuffed Wagnerian backdrops, sheets and sheets of cascading guitars, strings, glockenspiels, voices, sputtering saxophones, deep brass, and handclaps, all encased in a candy shell. Together, Phil and Ronnie made crowded, crawling music, with arrangements both big and brawny enough to touch the sun and tactful enough to sound their absolute best wafting out of tinny A.M. radios. Ronnie was Phil’s pocket-sized “it” girl, less muse than creative opportunity—a particularly well-fitting instrument to add to his sonic arsenal.
Though girls with guitars that will usually spark the most heated, panting reaction from men, the curious dynamic between a girl who sings and the boy who plays the instruments lurks in the subconscious of recorded pop music. Phil and Ronnie’s was a music organized around sex, a discourse between voice and instrument charged with sexual and social violence.
Consider it: the Girl sings, stands, and sways; the Boy plays a keyboard in the corner or mixes the instruments together behind a heap of equipment in a grimy studio. The Girl hangs limply from a mike stand, with the weight of a hundred lecherous eyes noticing only her pretty face and not the luminous sounds that make their heads nod and toes tap. And there’s swaying, lots of swaying. The singer gives the music a voice and a face, but the instruments give it muscle, give it heave and that sway.
In a similarly curious union, Ronnie Bennett became Ronnie Spector in 1968, a marriage that stifled her singing career until the inevitable divorce in 1974. Among his repertoire of domination, Spector, in a bizarrely apropos turn, reportedly locked his wife up in their home for weeks and made her watch Citizen Kane on repeat. But who, really, was the captor and who the captive in their music?
Enter The Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Friedberger and her brother, Matt. Eleanor sings the words, and Matt writes the words and plays the instruments. Together, they make something approximating rock nursery rhymes, bedtime stories for prog fans; with their singsong repetition of phrases, zigzagged words and propensity for pirates, Egyptians, sailors, and swashbucklers, the Fiery Furnaces’ music has a rollicking sense of adventure and fantasy worthy of footsy pajamas and the squiggliest of experimental pop.
Aside from that fantastical and familial exterior, the Fiery Furnaces have had sex on their dish from the very beginning; when a Girl sings and a Boy plays, there is nothing but sex to be sold, or at least everything and sex to give density to the music. Eleanor’s voice is fundamentally flat and thin, but she carries enough swagger and brio to pull off the heartiest pastiches of everything from sweet, breathy melodicism to throaty jabbing. She sings like she’s never heard of singing and certainly hasn’t seen anybody else do it before: detached, bug-eyed, aloof, but with a palpable sense of the thrill of her own voice that always propels her spirit a few steps ahead of her voice. Of late, Matt is in love with a sort of animatronic recreation of ‘70s A.M.-radio rock, complete with cheesy organs, robotic string parts, and flutes, flutes, FLUTES!
Together, the two make music that sounds like they haven’t spoken in weeks, with Eleanor’s vocals traversing boldly athwart Matt’s craggy rhythms, loopy effects, and heaping, generous arrangements. Eleanor’s words bend and wind around the teeming music, cramming too many syllables into too few beats, clipping sentences into gawky phrases and casting them off into the lurch and wash of the instrumentation.
The Fiery Furnaces are thrilling not only for their music proper but for the choreographed, studied violence between brother and sister. In interviews with the Friedbergers, it is usually Matt that dominates the conversation, speaking about their tunes in loops and riddles with a nerdy spaciness that seems to confound his sister, who, in turn, speaks slowly and looks on like a disapproving mother.
Matt and Eleanor’s newest album, Widow City, is a record about mischief. It is a game in which both Eleanor and Matt participate, and one made especially dynamic by the fact that this is ostensibly the Furnaces’ manliest record yet. Matt’s production here has a kick and bounce propelled by pounding guest drummer Bob D’Amico and what sounds like a massive pile of cracked, bruised Led Zeppelin records.
Gnarled electric guitar, upstart bass, and huge riffs are funneled through Matt’s fractured sensibilities into some of the Furnaces’ most traditionally rocking music to date. “Duplexes of the Dead” washes ashore with a synth-filtered acoustic guitar part that cuts right through the fog of Eleanor’s slurred aphorisms. Matt’s favorite technique of tracing Eleanor’s vocal line with a mimetic instrumental part gives tracks like “My Egyptian Grammar” a newly bucolic feel and a ‘70s soft-rock polish that provides a velvety cushion on which Eleanor’s jagged, typewriter vocals can tumble.
If pop music is at once the greatest swindle and the dishiest dinner theater, then the Fiery Furnaces are among its most exciting confidence men and choreographers. The absurdity of the whole affair—of singing about Egyptians or grandmothers or former lovers, of posturing over a guitar or keyboard, of pretending and miming and faking—is so wholly engrained in the Friedbergers’ approach to making records and touring that they know exactly how to dance and prance all over it. This is music for haunted houses, for moon bounces, for slumber parties, for school dances, for dancing, for pulp novelettes, and—like the Ronettes’—music for, by, and about what it means to be a girl who sings and a boy who plays.
Yet music proper is cleared from your head watching the Fiery Furnaces’ live performances. The Friedbergers are astonishingly beautiful people, with clear skin, dark hair, and strong, Grecian features. At Washington D.C.’s Black Cat Club this past July, leering whistles and catcalls accompanied Eleanor to the stage; Matt, by contrast, received only deadened chatter as he and guest road guitarist, Sebadoh’s Jason Lowenstein, set up their equipment. Eleanor was wearing a tiny deerskin jacket and moccasins—a frail sprite in pajama pants. Her shoulders were too thin and narrow to accommodate such a set of lungs, and, as their performance heated up, she crouched down weakly between vocal lines every few minutes to a small cache of bottled water at her feet.
Eleanor’s voice is different live than it is on record, shouty and pinched and a nail gun of torrential words, even on breathily melodic numbers like “Here Comes the Summer,” from their 2005 record EP. Matt peers out from behind a strong black mop of hair, owl-like, nonchalantly spinning his electric piano narrative over the ugly, warped-salsa sounds of the two percussionists backing the Friedbergers. Nobody plays bass. Familiar songs dart in and out of the twisted noise, the fluttering chorus of “Bitter Tea” here and a dusting of “Teach Me Sweetheart” there. There is an ugliness to this entire setting, a confusion and disjointedness wafting through the five musicians that belies the cohesion and careful composition of the Furnaces’ records.
When the Friedbergers take their imitation rock band on the road, it is the cautious, prickly glances that Matt and Eleanor trade that electrifies the music. There is no fuck to be had here, only a thrilling, noisy confrontation—between drummer and guitarist, between brother and sister, between pop song and noise act, between the contrivance of a recorded track and bare nudity of a live show, between boy and girl. It is music, as Matt himself has put it, “you could play at a party, you could play in your car, you could play in your parlor, or maybe you could play in your bathroom while you’re putting mousse on your hair, like I do everyday.” There is a secret here, but neither Matt nor Eleanor is giving it away any time soon.