If Blueberry Boat was the Who's Tommy modernized, resurrecting the self-indulgent carcass of the Seventies concept opus, then the new The Fiery Furnaces EP is a fleeter, more focused beast. It finds brother-sister duo Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger returning to the complex, rollicking compositions of their marvelous debut, Gallowsbird Peak. "Tropical Ice-land" (which Eleanor pronounces "icey land") stomps forth with a synthesized swing worthy of Elvis Costello and the Attractions as Eleanor sings, "Papier- mâché parade on at night/That's what you do with no sunlight." "Single Again" is a perverse electronic cabaret over which she breezily declaims, "He beat me he banged me," while "Duffer St. George" bounces along to the nursery rhyme "Jimmy Crack Corn."
At 41 minutes, The Fiery Furnaces EP is less a short and sweet story than a novella of literary ruminations. Eleanor's (and, less often, Matthew's) words are sharp and vivid, describing distinct smells and tastes, even as they happily tip over into absurdity. On "Smelling Cigarettes," she tells of walking around drunk as "the sleet scalds my sight, stunned I stayed put and a billboard truck runs over my foot." As her narrative hurtles forward in short, fragmented sentences, the music shifts abruptly, from an opaque piano lick, to a shuffling bass/drum rockabilly beat, to a full-on band, only to suddenly halt with a singular piano key, looping over and over again. "Don't you hurry-worry with me," she ends.
Such knotty ambitions are dependent on the strength of The Fiery Furnaces' songs. Some of the choruses seem happenstance, while other songs have none at all, leaving the listener to tune in or out on little more than the quality of the duo's tales. Even these vary widely. Some songs, such as the aforementioned "Smelling Cigarettes," have a clear narrative, while others are as externally nonsensical as a Wu-Tang Clan rhyme. "You can talk me to the bank," sings Eleanor on "Cousin Chris," then she and her brother add in unison, "Prop prince prize proof prize-proof, pry pray."
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For all its vacillations, The Fiery Furnaces EP confirms the Friedbergers' growing reputation as one of the most challenging groups in popular music. While other indie bands, from the Arcade Fire to Marah, seek to resurrect Eighties sports rock with their throaty anthems and hamfisted hooks, The Fiery Furnaces breathe hot and cool, spinning clear-cut melodies subtly undermined by a restless lyrical imagination. They are frustrating and exhilarating, disappointing and inspiring, eluding cursory judgments.