The Fiery Furnaces with White Magic at the Mod Club Theatre (722 College), Sunday (September 12), $17 advance. 416-588-4663. Rating: NNNNN
Matt Friedberger, one half of the brother-sister team that is the Fiery Furnaces, is having a rare break.
He's holed up in a New York City hotel while his sister Eleanor is overseas wrangling the European press. It's a moment of respite before resurfacing on the campaign trail for the Furnaces' latest album, Blueberry Boat.
Not that he's really getting to relax (he has to talk to people like me), but nosy journos don't seem to bother him. We've been speaking for less than five minutes and he's already launched into his second full-fledged rant on what makes rock music rock music. Rush, for example, is not rock.
"That stuff is very interesting and weird," Friedberger says, his voice rising excitedly as he gets carried away with the idea. "But it's not in the rock 'n' roll tradition. In rock 'n' roll tradition you take six takes to make it sound like the first take. That makes it sound like you're talking on the telephone. Or you're definitely trying to get over there to get a sip of that beer while you make the change with your left hand on the piano - and therefore miss it, which is great because it makes it sound like the piano player is drinking a beer. That's what rock 'n' roll is supposed to sound like.
That is, not like the Fiery Furnaces. Absurd as it seems to want to make pop music's Finnegan's Wake or Waiting For Godot, if we're to glean anything from Friedberger's intellectual tilting, that's exactly what he's trying to do.
"Is rock supposed to be when the chords of the song are a major triad tonic, a major seventh with a fifth? Is it musically interesting for the drummer to play in time behind you? No."
That's some of the reasoning behond Friedberger's decision to make some of the most critically polarizing music in recent pop. People aren't on the fence about the Fiery Furnaces; they love them or they hate them.
Time signatures are just one example of where Friedberger has recognized a convention and magnified it by going absurdly off time.
"When the drums in the middle of Mason City are woefully out of time with what the beats apparently should be, that's because both the people who are in the song are drunken hoboes walking down the street. And what's interesting about a song being in time anyway? Nothing."
The broken blues and Tin Pan folk, the off-tempo melodies and stumbling rhythms, the absurdist narratives of the songs, the half-cocked pop of it all, betray an arch semiotician's sensibility.
The Furnaces aren't the first to do it. Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica was in that vein and, more recently, the Desert Fathers' The Spirituality threw rock into the mixer and coughed it out as something challenging.
But what makes people feel so strongly about the Fiery Furnaces' music is the playfulness they bring to it. Like clever little shits, they deconstruct rock and distill it as pop satire.
"I'll tell you what's the mainline tradition of rock 'n' roll playing," Friedberger says. "Sam Phillips, where good music is just one big mistake; the guitar solos of George Harrison; the genius of James Brown to take away melody and lyrical interest from his songs; the precision of the Who; the smooth guitar solos of Lou Reed. That's what everyone agrees is good rock music. The tambourine out of time with the snare in Time Is On My Side by the Rolling Stones, that's what rock 'n' roll is supposed to be."