February 23, 2004

Live Report: The Fiery Furnaces, w/The Black, Pack of Lies and The Arm, Emo's, Austin, Texas

The Fiery Furnaces, arguably the best brother/sister duo to come along since the White Stripes (tee hee), were recommended to me by members of an Internet mailing list dedicated to British post-punk institution the Fall. The appropriately named Fallnet list introduced me to both Beachbuggy and the Country Teasers, and I can now add the Furnaces to the winning streak. I downloaded their album Gallowsbird’s Bark off of my file-sharing network of choice (calm down, Joseph, and keep reading) and LOVED what I heard. I was dismayed when Quasi’s music started displaying stronger blues influences (particularly on their latest album, Hot Shit). However, the Fiery Furnaces seem to have improved on the sound that Quasi’s been aiming for. At the very least, I wanted to come to the show to put my money where my mouth was and buy their CD. My second incentive for attending the show was that one of the opening acts was the Arm, a band fronted by ANOTHER Fallnet member. I’d seen the Arm play live twice before, and was certain that they wouldn’t disappoint this time around.

The first act on the bill, the Black, was MUCH better than I expect the first band on ANY Austin bill to be, especially after having to sit through crap like Rubble at previous shows. They play lovelorn indie-rock that practically begs for a spot on the Barsuk Records roster. The singer looked like a male version of Penelope Cruz and sang in a pleading, reedy voice while simultaneously playing piano. You could tell that the songs were built off of his piano parts, unlike many bands that use keyboards as embellishments or afterthoughts. The rhythm section, particularly the drummer, was tight and assertive, and the guitarist did his best Sterling Morrison impersonation. They did covers of John Cale’s “Big Black Cloud” and JJ Jackson’s “It’s Alright.” For the latter cover, the singer switched from piano to guitar. Unfortunately, he refused to tune his guitar, which made the song sound like a mess. Nonetheless, the band hammed it up, and even this weak spot in the set managed to charm the audience. For a band that seemingly came out of nowhere, the Black are surprisingly cohesive and professional. If they keep playing, I could easily see them getting big.

The second act, Pack of Lies, was terrible. Singer/guitarist Jason McNeely started this band after leaving another local outfit, the wonderful (and wonderfully named) I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness. Like McNeely’s former band, Pack of Lies can be accused of listening to way too much Joy Division (or maybe Interpol) for their own good. Unlike Chosen Darkness, though, Pack of Lies lacks the ability to pen memorable songs. They have little in the way of strong riffs or melodies. McNeely’s mumbling makes the Adams brothers of Hood sound like Freddie Mercury in comparison, which makes their already listless songs disappear into the ether. Every song was repetitive and boring for about three or four minutes, until the band settled on ONE good idea, which they played for about 30 seconds before the song finally ended. The keyboards and drums were barely audible in the mix, and someone needs to tell the second guitarist that thrashing your guitar around like it slapped your mama is NOT the same as playing lead. I urge the remaining four members of Chosen Darkness to stage an intervention and take McNeely back so that he can stop playing this garbage.

The Arm, as usual, put on a great show, with a few noticeable changes. For one, they played on the stage instead of in the standing area (where they normally play, Lightning Bolt style). This meant that the soundman could actually mike the instruments without worrying about the audience kicking the microphones around. Second of all, there was a new drummer and a new guitarist. The new drummer hits harder and faster than the previous drummer did. The new guitarist isn’t as sloppy as the previous guitarist was. Both of these are definitely good things. If only singer/organist Sean O’Neal can do something about the bass player, who looks compulsively bored and sometimes doesn’t even bother to audibly strum his instrument.

The Arm are blessed and/or cursed with the trait of complete transparency. Sean O’Neal wishes he was Mark E. Smith, and loves the electronic music and New Wave of the 1980s. He even has the Duran Duran hairdo to prove it. Thus, he started a band with an intentionally limited stylistic range. Take your pick: it’s either Pitchforkian dance-punk or Williamsburg art-punk. He makes sure that the guitarist and bass player never play in the same key at the same time. He never sings; he only shouts. He writes a song called “Song Automatic 1-2-3” in which he admits to being unoriginal. “Good evening. We are NOT the Fall! I speak in calculated tones (a homage…the French call it ‘frommage’), rather than take a new direction.” Yes, those words are actually in the song. By all means, the Arm should suck. Against all odds, though, the band ROCKS, the songs are catchy, and the crowd is wowed.

The Fiery Furnaces capitalized on the Arm’s intensity by playing an hour-long set that had all of Emo’s in the palm of their hands. Singer/guitarist Eleanor Friedburger looks and sounds like a helium-fueled Patti Smith. When she’s not strumming basic bar chords on her instrument, she’s prowling the stage and singing Beefheart-style couplets like “I pierced my ears with a three-hole punch/Ate twelve dozen donuts for lunch” (from “I’m Gotta Run”) with so much authority that you don’t even notice how little sense the lyrics make. Her brother Matthew one-ups Quasi’s Sam Coomes with an overwhelming supply of hot guitar licks and jazzy piano noodles run through the ugliest wah-wah, distortion, and modulation devices ever. The drummer navigates the constant stops, starts, dynamic shifts, and tempo changes with an almost scary ease. The band grouped their songs into medleys, with one song transforming into the next at the most unexpected moments, without any sort of discernible logic. I was familiar with almost every song on Gallowsbird’s Bark, and I still couldn’t figure out how far they had progressed through the set list until they were almost through playing. The last band to take me on a roller coaster ride that wild was Deerhoof, and I can easily see the Fiery Furnaces reaching that level of greatness quickly. Both bands make music that feels like a soundtrack to a surrealist radio play for children with slightly macabre imaginations. Unfortunately, the Fiery Furnaces had sold out of copies of their album before they got to Austin. Fear not, file-sharing Nazis: the next time I visited Austin I headed STRAIGHT to Waterloo and did the right thing.

---Sean Padilla

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