Fiery Furnaces 

Widow City (Thrill Jockey)

The third track of Widow City is proof of just how much mileage the Fiery Furnaces can squeeze out of a two-minute song. Though clocking in at a mere 128 seconds, ‘Automatic Husband’ bombards listeners with guitar fuzz, harps, toy piano jangle, various synth lines, and a labyrinthine story involving a “commission of Navajo basketball coaches and blonde ladies.” So it’s safe to say that for fans of beat poetry, late-period Joyce and, of course, drugs, Widow City is about the best thing since Blueberry Boat, the Furnaces’ breakout 2004 album.

And even if this isn’t you, the brother-sister duo of Ellie and Matthew Friedberger are louder, more melodic and arguably more accessible than ever here—they take a Zeppelin-like turn on ‘Navy Nurse,’ while ‘Ex-Guru’ is as danceable, a track as they’ve ever recorded. The Furnaces sense of humor has always been pretty obscure, but even an otherwise-turgid story about a horny Spanish duke on ‘Cabaret of the Seven Devils’ is good for a guffaw or two. And it doesn’t hurt that it, like most of the album, is catchy as hell, although the Furnaces still like changing direction mid-song, and still use maddeningly complicated song structures to mask a larger, almost literary coherency.

But it is coherency that is tough to pin down, and even a top-notch outing like this one can play like an hour of impenetrable nonsense poetry. Catchiness aside, the Furnaces’ is a strange, strange world of champion dwarf marigolds, French canal hieroglyphics and avenged cobbler whisky pies. There’s probably a professorship waiting for whoever can divine any meaning out of this — which is to say that these uniquely Friedbergian idiosyncrasies are still what make the Furnaces brilliant or, conversely, near-impossible to deal with.

So while Widow City doesn’t have as many ill-advised experimental dalliances as 2006’s backward-talking Bitter Tea, it is unlikely to sway the legions of Furnace-haters out there. But haters have to respect the band’s inexhaustible creativity, however enigmatic its results — there just aren’t many bands that could turn “the evening in question was a moonless Monday” into such a rockin’ line.

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