It’s a Bit Complicated
The Fiery Furnaces and Bryan Scary Get Difficult

I’ve just heard about LeRoi Moore’s death.

I first became aware of the Dave Matthews Band in 1994, a few weeks after the release of their breakthrough album, Under the Table and Dreaming. I was browsing in a record store (which is pretty much where I am when I’m not working) and I started feeling this nudge. There’s a part of my brain that is always attuned to what music is playing, wherever I am, and that part sometimes has to smack the rest of my brain to get it to listen.

I remember it was “Jimi Thing” that finally grabbed my attention. Now, you have to remember, in 1994, no one had ever heard a sound like the one the Dave Matthews Band concocted. Acoustic guitar, bass, violin, saxophone and drums? In the age of Nirvana, what the hell kind of band was that? But it worked. It was part jazz, part folk, part jam band, and all awesome.

This was months before Under the Table and Dreaming exploded all over the scene, turning the South African folkie and his band of jazzheads into unlikely superstars. It was actually permissible, in those days, to write about the Dave Matthews Band and just concentrate on the music, and the music was always good. I like the first three studio albums a lot, but best of all, I think, is 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets. It’s the one studio record that really captures how aggressive the band could be live – just about every song evolves into an extended jam, arcing higher and higher as it goes.

And there, in the thick of things, was Moore, wailing away on his array of saxophones. He was a hell of a player, even in the studio, but you had to hear him live to really get it. In fact, the whole band shone on stage, a five-piece that moved and thought as one. I know it’s not fashionable to praise the Dave Matthews Band, but if you can listen to just one of their many live albums all the way through and not agree that they’re great musicians, I don’t know what to tell you.

LeRoi Moore was in an ATV accident in June, during which he punctured a lung and broke a few ribs. He was released from the hospital days later, but readmitted in July for related reasons that remain unclear. On Tuesday, he died from his injuries, at the young age of 46. I’m glad I got to see him live, but I’m sad the original Dave Matthews Band will never play another gig, or make another record. Rest in peace, LeRoi. You’ll be missed.

* * * * *

This week I got to talk to D.L. Hughley.

Aw, who am I kidding? It was the undisputed highlight of my week so far. I GOT TO TALK TO D.L. HUGHLEY! Very nice guy, and he was absolutely up for what I hoped he’d be: a philosophical discussion on the state of modern comedy, and the art form he’s dedicated his life to. It was a good conversation, and he gave me innumerable great quotes. Plus, he called me from a golf course in Los Angeles, which I thought was kind of awesome.

So we started talking about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Aaron Sorkin’s latest show. Hughley played Simon Stiles, one of the stars of the show-within-a-show, and a bracing advocate of racial equality in comedy. It was a very good performance, but come to find out Hughley wasn’t thrilled with the writing on the program. He called the show “highbrow to the point of being exclusionary,” and we joked about needing to reference Wikipedia just to get all the jokes.

That got me thinking. I loved Studio 60, but Hughley’s right – occasionally the show just got too clever for its own good, which minimized its audience. Still, I’d never argue that anything should be dumbed down to suit the people watching it, or listening to it. I wondered, though – is there a point where complexity just translates into being difficult for its own sake? Sure, you’re impressing yourself, but who else is listening? And does it matter?

Take the Fiery Furnaces, for instance. The siblings Friedberger (singer Eleanor and mad genius Matthew) started out as a likable garage-blues band, but quickly transformed into this insane, schizophrenic, junk-prog outfit. Ten-minute songs, ever-changing sonic landscapes, songs with no melodies, songs with 500 melodies, songs that retain that punk-ish minimalism while being frigging impossible to play. Plus, they’re astonishingly prolific – they’ve turned out six studio records since 2003, and Matthew Friedberger found time to produce a double-disc solo album in there too.

I’ve been along for the ride, for the most part. I’m one of the few critics who thought Rehearsing My Choir, the 2005 album the Friedbergers made with their grandmother, was riveting. But lately, it’s started to sound a bit samey to me – listening to last year’s Widow City, I actually kind of longed for the simple bluesy stretches of their early stuff. But the further you tunnel up your own ass, the harder it is to back out again.

Case in point – here is Remember, the first Furnaces live album, and the most insane thing they’ve ever released. It is 130 minutes long, contains 51 tracks, and will give you a headache pretty quickly. There’s actually a warning on the back of the case: “Please do not attempt to listen to all at once.” I laughed at first, but they’re right – this is sensory overload, too much crazy to take in one big chunk.

I’ve actually been waiting for a Furnaces live album, since their concerts are legendary. Using a shifting lineup, the Furnaces go to great lengths to make sure no one show is the same as any other. While some bands will use their recorded versions as a jumping-off point, the Furnaces almost entirely disregard them. They rearrange the songs completely, often stripping them of anything recognizable. I’m not sure how they do it and keep it all straight on stage, so I was eager to hear a live document.

Remember is a live album the way Frank Zappa’s live albums were. Matthew Friedberger took four tours’ worth of live tapes and spliced them together, apparently at random. You’ll get 40 seconds of one song, then it will abruptly cut to two minutes of another, and so on. It gets worse – the four tours were not recorded at the same quality, so the splices are obvious. Eleanor will be singing with crystal clarity one moment, then sound like she’s in a cave five miles away the next. It’s jarring.

Even more ridiculous is the decision to splice together bits from the same song. I know, Zappa used to do this too, but you couldn’t really tell unless you were listening for it. Opener “Blueberry Boat” is about eight minutes long here – a little shorter than its studio counterpart – but it consists of the same bits of song repeated, played by different Furnaces lineups in different venues. Eleanor takes solace in her blueberry cargo four or five times here, and you’ll think your CD skipped backwards.

I have listened to all of Remember, and I don’t really understand what it’s trying to do. Sure, it’s complex, and there are nifty sections – there’s a great version of “Teach Me Sweetheart” on disc one, and a medley of songs from Choir on disc two that works well – but as a whole, it’s a bloody mess. Inaccessible isn’t even the word – Remember is impenetrable, and while I admire the musicianship and the time it must have taken to edit this thing together, I doubt I’m going to listen to it very often.

So where is the line? Where did the Furnaces finally lose me, on their journey towards unlistenable complexity? Can something be dazzlingly complicated and still musically moving?

Of course it can. Let me present the best example I’ve heard this year: Flight of the Knife, by Bryan Scary and the Shredding Tears. Right now, you are likely asking, “Who the fuck?” It took me a minute to get past the name, too – Bryan Scary immediately made me think of Richard Scarry, and the Shredding Tears? Um, what? But when the music is this good, who cares what the band is called?

Flight of the Knife sounds to me like Zappa joining Wings. The album is full of these incredible, memorable, melodic pop songs, like Jellyfish-quality pop songs. But it’s also astonishingly technical, complex music – time and tempo changes, musical reversals, moments where the band whips the rug out from under you. The opening title track is an epic piece, the longest thing here at 5:38, but amidst the Zappa-isms (the quick, random fills, the crazy tempos) are enough glorious melodies to fill three songs.

“Venus Ambassador” is even better. It starts with a piano-vocal overture, like something floating out of a cartoon sky. The song proper is a Paul McCartney special, with a melody line that never quits. The falsetto section over the arpeggiated piano and whirling bass, the shuffling chorus, the “ay-ay-ay” harmonies – it’s just fantastic. And then! It explodes into a barrelhouse two-step, pianos pounding, and finally disintegrates. All this in 4:21.

I could talk about each song this way, so brilliant is the writing on each of them. I think my favorite is “Imitation of the Sky” – if the Ben Folds Five who made their first album learned everything they knew from Electric Light Orchestra, it might sound like this. “The Curious Disappearance of the Sky-Ship Thunder-Man” is an incredible title for a very 1970s prog-rock-meets-Elton-John wonder. And “Mama Waits” is the coolest two-minute pop song you’re likely to hear in 2008, its creeping “ooh-ooh” opening finally morphing into a killer chorus.

See, I’m doing it – I’m talking about every song, because they’re all so damn good. This album is a perfect example of harnessing jaw-dropping musical talent in service of a set of delightful songs. There’s more than a little Freddie Mercury here (“Heaven on a Bird” especially), tons of McCartney, and oodles of pop songwriting genius. Flight of the Knife not only proves that complexity doesn’t have to be a bad thing, it stands as one of the finest albums of the year, easy.

You can hear some of the best Knife songs here. “Imitation of the Sky” is a must.

I might not have heard of Bryan Scary at all without Dr. Tony Shore, who is constantly recommending wonderful records to me. Check out his blog – he’s trying to review an album a day lately, and as someone who knows how hard a daily deadline can be, I know he needs all the encouragement he can get. Thanks, Doc!

That’s it for this week – I’m going to see Joanna Newsom with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Friday, and friends I haven’t seen in months are flying in for the occasion, so I need to wrap this up. Next week, Matthew Sweet, and probably a few others.

See you in line Tuesday morning.