While the Fiery Furnaces arrived in a music scene teeming with bands formed by brothers and sisters (or, at least, by people who claim to be) and bands from New York, on their debut album, Gallowsbird's Bark, this brother-and-sister-led group from New York manages to avoid the pitfalls that those superficial similarities suggest. It's true that garage rock and post-punk form the foundations of the band's style, but the Fiery Furnaces' loose-limbed music also incorporates folk, blues, and music hall, setting them worlds apart from the stylish, often jaded sounds of their fellow New Yorkers. In fact, the band doesn't sound like it's from anywhere in particular. Gallowsbird's Bark's name and wonky twists and turns hint at a British influence, but at heart, the Fiery Furnaces are scavengers and vagabonds, with rambling songs about roaming (the album isn't decorated with imagery from maps for nothing). "Bright Blue Tie" is a whimsically detailed travelogue of Sweden, and although "Tropical Ice-Land" may not be an actual destination, its shimmering folk-pop makes it no less vivid. A sense of fun is also palpable on Gallowsbird's Bark, partly because Eleanor Friedberger sings lyrics like "I gave my cell phone to my cousin/He plays the threats that I get to his friends at school" like an elegant dare, and partly because the pianos that grace nearly every track emphasize their playful theatricality. Songs like "Inca Rag/Name Game" and "Bow Wow" have a strangely jolly, vintage flair, as though they're from some lost songbook from the turn of the century -- although which century isn't exactly clear. Even when the Fiery Furnaces take turns toward the menacing, as on "Leaky Tunnel" and the paranoid, elliptically political album closer, "We Got Back the Plague," a dry wit runs through their songs that keeps them from being dour. Some of the album's best moments manage to be fun and menacing at the same time. The nervy "I'm Gonna Run" features a great distillation of on-the-job ennui ("Slit my wrists with my Swingline/Copied myself 500 times"), and "Don't Dance Her Down" could soundtrack a bar fight. While songs like "Crystal Clear" and "Two Fat Feet" sound dizzying and jumbled at first, eventually their gleeful chaos settles into something a little more orderly, but no less mischievous. A fantastic debut album that only gets richer and better with more listens, Gallowsbird's Bark is more fully formed and daring than most second or third albums from many bands. It's a work full of mysterious fun, and the fact that its oddly old sound makes it one of 2003's freshest albums is one of the least mysterious things about it.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares