Call them a progressive punk band or perhaps an art-rock ensemble or maybe an avant-blues-jazz-funk-pop-opera-Broadway proposition of some sort. However you categorize them, the Fiery Furnaces' brother-sister duo of Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, in town Friday and Saturday for back-to-back performances at Spaceland, have combined all manner of musical styles in thrilling new ways, crafting rock with unusually fresh invention -- and humor.
The Furnaces' upcoming "Remember" album, due out in August, is a double-CD (and triple-LP) set of live recordings that serves as a retrospective on the band's career. In keeping with the New York-based duo's fiercely experimental aesthetic, though, the 51 songs on the release have been re-edited and recombined so as to create completely new musical vistas.
While "Remember" is the band's most radical project yet, it's certainly not their first attempt at such a substantially, well, epic undertaking.
"We did a tour where we did a version of the 'Rehearsing My Choir' record, which is rearranged from the original material," Matt Friedberger says of the Furnaces' 2005 album, which features the siblings' grandmother telling the story of her life. "Then another tour we did for the 'Bitter Tea' album, it was totally rearranged. 'Bitter Tea' is not a very rock 'n' roll record, there's not much guitar playing. But on one tour we played it as guitar rock. You want to make it a different record live."
"It's the opportunity to do something different," he continues. "If it's a sad song, you get to play it in a happy mood; if it's a slow song you get to play it fast. Presumably some of the versions of the songs will be better, and we'll change them just for the sake of changing, and some people will miss the better versions. But you gotta keep moving."
The pair have collaborated since their childhood. Growing up in Oak Park, Ill., little sister Eleanor insisted on singing with multi-instrumentalist brother Matt, and as adults, they've embarked on musical projects apparently designed to redefine what rock music can or should be all about.
Their albums range from the literate music-hall mishmash of their 2003 debut "Gallowsbird's Bark" to the progressive-pop pirates-tale "Blueberry Boat" to the meta-pop-punk stylings of "Bitter Tea" and the recent "Widow City." Spanning an often befuddling reach of musical styles tied together in attention-deficit syndrome fashion by sudden stops, starts, side trips and quirky overlaps, much of the Furnaces' self-defined oeuvre has had critics scrambling for contextual precedents; the White Stripes are the usual comparison -- though the Fiery Furnaces really are brother and sister.
Live, the band rips out its rock mini-epics with an almost alarming precision and fire, aided for several dates of the current tour by Sebadoh guitarist Jason Lowenstein and drummer Robert D'Amico.
Under the amusingly serious eye of big brother Matt, Eleanor has the seemingly difficult job of remembering the duo's copious and complex lyrics. "I don't know how to explain it," she says with a laugh, speaking by phone from New York. "I have to sing them all without thinking about it. If I think about it, then it's a problem."
"We like writing about places and about action -- with a lot of details," she adds.
"Remember's" fractured stitchings and stackings of the Fiery Furnaces' songs tell the true story of the band. While putting the band's history in perspective was important to him at this point, he admits that he did the album's recombinant versions mostly because it was something interesting to do.
"It's an opera about the band, starring the band, the program of which is only in my head," says Matt, chuckling. "It's like driving through Wyoming on I-80 -- you can see the different layers, the geology, and it's not millions of years, it's a couple years."
It is, he says, a much more reality-based way of presenting his music.
"Cutting between the songs, and cutting between different versions of the songs, sounds a little more realistic that normal records," he says. "It's actually how people's thought processes go when they hear songs; they'll have a song in their head, and then they'll turn on the TV and it'll drown it out immediately. So I tried to arrange this record to be like people's actual experience of thinking about music."
How all this plays out will be on display at the Fiery Furnaces' cross-country live dates, when they'll remake/remodel their already radical take on rock and pop -- in order to be true to the songs.
"If you're being sincere, you're probably going to play that song a different way than you did two years ago," says Matt. "Mainly, there should be some sort of musical point to it. I mean, most rock concerts are just a personal appearance, just a validation for everybody -- for the fans, to hear the songs they like, and for the bands, to have people treat them special. It's a social thing, and that's fine, but there's not a very musical point to it. So we try to have a tiny little musical point to our playing live."