by Carl Wilson
When I first saw Eleanor Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces perform, I was (like many others) reminded of Patti Smith. But it’s in the angle of E.F.’s nose and the insolence of her mouth and the willfully untended hair, not in her voice really. E.F. has a well-bred, kids’-TV-meets-cabaret approach to singing a story, like a book on tape, her consonants so crisp it’s like they’re sweating little beads of tart apple juice. It’s more as if Edith Nesbit fronted a rock band, or Edith Wharton. Still, Smith and the Fiery Furnaces both build word-drunk narratives over a musical scaffold from the heavier end of classic rock (though in Smith’s heyday those classics were new); and they both depend on partnerships between a woman who sings and a guy who plays guitar. Smith’s most famous collaborator is Lenny Kaye, though there have been others. Eleanor Friedberger’s foil is Matthew Friedberger, her brother.
When you hear or see Patti Smith, you know that for all her generosity, she’s also a diva. The songs are her stories, the music the altar on which her words are burned and transfigured. It can be inflected, recharged, reframed by different partners, but its essence is singular. When I first heard the Friedbergers, by contrast, I imagined that the process of making music for them was like a couple of siblings goofing around with a tape recorder and making up stories.
Later, my impression shifted. Maybe Matthew was the controlling creative interest and Eleanor a performer/interpreter. But then on their most recent record, I’m Going Away, Eleanor apparently wrote the majority of the lyrics. Such a back-and-forth makes as much sense as any sort of specialization between a creative pair; my desire to get at the truth about their method – was Matt really some kind of Richard Carpenter figure, the music nerd exploiting his beautiful singing sister? – was my own problem. It was a compulsion to pin the artists in place. (The better to explain you with, my dears.)
I dropped in to see the Furnaces again last night at the Drake Underground in Toronto. The place was only half-full, surprising for a band that used to crowd much bigger halls. Their excursions into long-form suites, one of them based on recordings they made with their grandma, seem to have worn down the more fickle listeners’ patience, even though every record the past few years has been praised as a “return to pop form.” I hope it doesn’t make the FF’s feel that they’re on any kind of downward drift. They certainly don’t play like it. They must appreciate having an audience instead that’s mouthing along with every multisyllabic line.
The band (with Jason Lowenstein [Sebadoh] on bass and Robert D’Amico on drums) doesn’t make it easy for the would-be karaoke singer to follow the bouncing ball, the way it collages their recorded tunes together live into non-stop rolling medleys (I thought of Gilbert & Sullivan more than once, and Glee) that change from show to show. That element is, no matter who contributes what, perhaps the most fascinating outgrowth of this living study in collaboration. It’s difficult to know, but there seems to be no solid set list; Matt would just veer into another song at the tail end of the last, and with a practised grace, Eleanor would land on the first, wordplay-packed line as if she’d known what was coming and had already baked it a cake. Serve and volley; call and response.
Eleanor stands in the traditional place of the preacher, at the centre of the stage, to whom Matt plays choir director (or talk-show band leader); it’s not a role reversal in which second banana is secretly boss, because once he’s called the cue she once again has primary command (instrumentals are brief and gestural). It’s more like Lester Young and Billie Holiday, maybe – each power sovereign in its canton within the federated state of the song. Even on record Fiery Furnaces songs seem built like a collective of interconnected duchies or archipelagos, and the jumps between locations can weary. They’re a band whose albums can give you jet-lag.
It’s pure speculation but it seems like all these stratagems – and more I haven’t mentioned, especially an album coming out this fall called Take Me ‘Round Again, on which they cover their own songs but re-write each other’s parts – spring from the special nature of inter-sibling collaboration. Perhaps you have to play a lot of games to keep it seeming fair, like dividing up the ice cream evenly. You be the Nazi this time, I’ll be the Allies.
I’m fascinated by familial or romantic collaboration. It’s difficult enough to collaborate with friends, as on this new blog. I’ve been to the outskirts of that even-closer experience, but seldom deep inside. I was once in a band with two of my best friends, one of them an ex-, along with her brother. The interpersonal dynamics were one of the reasons we played only two shows in three years. I’ve been an assistant, a doorperson, a driver, a publicist for other intimates, but usually stayed a step back from the cauldron, kept my potions to myself. I’m not sure whether I think that a lover or family member would know too much about me to take my input seriously, or if I fear that they’d find out too much to go on loving me.
But the prospect definitely spooks and thus beguiles me. When I look at the McGarrigle-Wainwright family, or Toronto’s husband-wife Lullaby Arkestra, or the Furnaces, or any number of other such partnerships, it’s as if they have superpowers. I might over-mysticize the art that results. There’s a sci-fi aphorism that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Perhaps the same could be said of any art that is sufficiently free of fear.
This doesn’t require the conventional kind of family. I am thinking of two people that my city, Toronto, has lost, far too young and almost exactly a month apart, to cancer: One was Will Munro, an artist and party organizer and more, who managed to remap queer (and straight) life in this city. It looked like he was doing it just by getting people to dance in different places to different music. But that wasn’t it. Will was doing it by loving people’s differences more than their similarities; the effect just radiated out, and enabled others to do as he’d done. He died May 21.
Another is Tracy Wright, an actor who brought her sharp, soulful presence to all she touched, whether an experimental performance piece, TV series or movie. She collaborated with loved ones but she also made loved ones of collaborators, a category you could say extended to much of Toronto’s theatre community, as evidenced by the benefit performance of Brecht’s Galileo staged in her honour last month. She was meant to star in it, as Galileo, but then surgery was scheduled and she ended up watching over Skype from her hospital bed. She died this morning. Perhaps her talent was too sharp and particular to attract popular fame; as Galileo apocryphally said, “And yet it moves.”
These days it seems like divas, grand as they are, are too much with us. A sister playing an intricate game of musical catch with her brother shouldn’t be mistaken for and measured by Patti Smith because of her haircut. I hope that because of the way they shared their too-brief creative lives, like siblings or lovers, not bosses or stars, Tracy’s and Will’s spirits will still move and stir among us. Perhaps with enough circulation, enough give and take, this can somehow set to right what, at the end of a sad day, seems so very out of balance.