General 2-2-2005

The Power of Two

Forget Hall and Oates--the pop duo format is in the midst of a renaissance

The Fiery Furnaces


The Fiery Furnaces

Rough Trade

Two of Us DVD

Mates of State

Polyvinyl Records

Among the plethora of adorably quaint anachronisms surrounding the Grammys–the Victrola-shaped awards themselves, the unclear distinction between “Song” and “Record” of the year, the fact that Steely Dan took one home (in the rock category) within the last decade–my personal favorite is the “Duo or Group” designation. As far back as I can remember, the “duo” half of that category has been one of the more useless inclusions in award-show history–aside from that pesky Steely Dan, the last really notable thing about any mere two-person band was probably the magnificent coiffures that Hall and Oates brought to the table in the mid-1980s.

But a couple of years ago, a shift happened—not anywhere near the Grammy-impacting mainstream, not then, but deeper in the still-undiscovered Detroit rock underground: a guitar player named Jack White and his ex-wife Meg started dressing up like peppermint candies and formed a new band, stripped down to just two people, four drums and six strings. And a whole lot of people decided they liked ‘em. Enough people to, eventually, get the White Stripes on those self-same Grammys, making a racket that scared the hell out of more than a few members of the Academy, while getting a whole lot more folks to realize that maybe the Rock Duo could, in fact, create some waves of its own.

And while Jack and Meg have been quiet since 2003’s Elephant, the upshot of their success is that a whole bunch of excellent duets have finally gotten record labels to listen. …

The Fiery Furnaces, though ostensibly from New York, frequently seem like they might be from Mars, or possibly some alternate Earth in which kids listen mostly to sea shanties and klezmer and Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya outtakes, then grow up to sing simple ditties about pirates and puppies and complicated, stream-of-consciousness narratives about opening a window and yelling at someone on the street.

Weird? Sure. But it did result in one of 2004’s best albums, the astonishing Blueberry Boat, a 75-minute epic that combined snap-along piano-bar verses, frequent electronic beats, the occasional power-chord guitar and Eleanor Friedberger’s marvelous, vaudeville-belter voice into a suite of multiple-movement songs about everything and nothing, sounding like the original cast recording of the best, strangest off-Broadway musical never made.

And, just so no one can accuse them of complacency, the Fiery Furnaces are following up that achingly ambitious record with no fewer than three releases in 2005, starting with the ten-song EP. It’s being billed as a collection of singles, though that’s not totally accurate, using the traditional definition of the term–the revolution would have to come before any of these songs sniffed mainstream radio play, and even then it’d be iffy. But EP’s previously-uncollected odds and ends are a bit more accessible than the Furnaces’ somewhat daunting albums, and this sampler is a perfect introduction to one of the most vital and intriguing bands working today.

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