For most musical acts, having a signature sound without growing predictable is a challenge. For duos, it’s an even trickier problem. It’s also known as The White Stripes Conundrum. Jack and Meg White should only be able to write so many songs with drums and a guitar before their discography sounds like one long track. Yet, just because you can hear the tinny strum of his guitar and the simple pound of her drums in each song, you don’t confuse “Hello Operator” with “The Hardest Button to Button”. They figured it out.
Similarly, Brooklyn band The Fiery Furnaces should have run out of originality long ago, but here they are releasing their seventh studio album. Brother and sister Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger have found yet another way to squeeze originality from their small band. One way they do it is by not having a simple two-instrument arrangement. Matthew Friedberger is a talented multi-instrumentalist who plays most of what you’re hearing on the Furnaces’ albums, and his sister provides the vocals.
On their latest release, I’m Going Away, they indulge their soul and R&B sides more than they ever have, and it works. Eleanor Friedberger’s voice isn’t flat, but it’s definitely limited. Her vocal variations tend to come from tempo and volume shifts, not from key changes. Listen to the frantic singing in “Charmaine Champagne”, and tell me you’re not reminded of Patti Smith’s heavy voice getting riled up in a trademark poetry reading. For Friedberger, passionate delivery means more than technical prowess.
Of the many highlights on I’m Going Away, the strongest moments occur when the Furnaces sound confident– maybe overconfident. “Staring at the Steeple” struts with a soul-rock swagger you’d expect from the aforementioned The White Stripes. A church organ punctuates Friedberger’s sassy musings: “I’m staring at the steeple, I’m staring at the steeple / I wonder who is preaching / They say it’s two women in bed / they say one wears a robe, one wears a crystal / One keeps one time, and the other keeps a pistol”. She spits out the words as if she’s accusing the listener of lying about what’s going on in that church as drums constantly clash, making each line a startling revelation.
Another winning track is the scathing opening title track, “I’m Going Away”. Whether the titular threat is in her imminent departure or her promise to return, I’m not sure. When Friedberger tells you she’s taken all she can from you and is ready to move on to a new man, you believe her. And you like it. Her attitude works because she’s not playing the vixen or the cooing sex kitten with a bite; her thick voice suggests a woman who’s experienced love, heartbreak, and betrayal. When contemporary artists– especially indie rockers from the northeast– tap into blues and soul, they need to sell it and not just play dress-up for a few minutes. Friedberger sells it.
The least interesting moments are still enjoyable ones. The closing number, “Take Me Round Again”, is a fun jaunt that sounds like a Traveling Wilburys homage. The only drawback is that for a track wrapping up an album full of attitude, it’s decidedly lighthearted. And as the track creeps toward the six-minute mark, you’d expect an exciting build-up, but what you get is a conventional fadeout. It just doesn’t do the album justice.
Compared to their earlier releases, I’m Going Away could be the band’s weirdest album because it’s so likable. It’s accessible and feels like a brief experience you can easily enjoy from start to finish, but it’s not boring. Tracks like “Drive to Dallas” and “Keep Me In the Dark” are closer to the band’s indie rock roots, though you can hear whispers of other genres bleeding into each track. I suppose some fans who liked the challenge of digging through the layers of the band’s previous albums might feel as if I’m Going Away is too easy. Yet, I think most fans have grown to enjoy the band’s willingness to challenge themselves and subsequently their audience, and therefore will view this as yet another adventure.