The first song on Widow City, "Philadelphia Grand Jury" -- all seven minutes of it -- defines everything fascinating, and occasionally frustrating, about the Fiery Furnaces' music. Eleanor Friedberger sings about legal woes, red tape, and conspiracies as the music behind her switches from tinkling piano and harp to anthemic guitars and back again, then drifts off into its own noodly world. Likewise, Widow City is a quintessentially Fiery Furnaces album, recombining the Friedburgers' hyper-literate art rock and experimental almost-pop: "Japanese Slippers" plays a bit like one of Gallowsbird's Bark's saloon ditties filtered through Blueberry Boat's kaleidoscope. However, Widow City's major accomplishment is how it captures the band's live power and sheds some of their mannered studio sound. It rocks hard, and often: in-the-red drums and guitars dominate "Wicker Whatnots," where they collide with violins and lyrics about animal sacrifices and meterological conditions, and the thrashy "Uncle Charlie," which opens with a lengthy -- and crazed -- drum solo, then threatens to collapse for its entire two minutes. There's also a strong classic rock influence on the album; "Duplexes of the Dead"'s melody sounds more than a little like the chorus of the Rolling Stones' "Child of the Moon," and "Navy Nurse"'s funky, behemoth riff could be from Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein."
Since it's a quintessentially Fiery Furnaces album, Widow City has some moments that rank with their very best: "Clear Signal from Cairo" revels in miscommunication with dense, intersecting melodies and lyrics that could be lifted from a stuttering telegram. "Automatic Husband" throws together thunderous rock, sweeping harps, and spoken-word vocals that border on hip-hop to a playfully sinister melody befitting a cartoon villain. It's the most mischievous the Friedburgers have been since Blueberry Boat, the album Widow City resembles most, down to travelogue songs like the polyrhythmic, bottom-heavy "Cabaret of the Seven Devils." The Furnaces' storytelling is also sharper here than it has been in a few albums: "The Old Hag Is Sleeping" tells the tale of an embittered elderly couple from three viewpoints (hers, his, and their grandchild's), with the sound of chattering monkeys in the background adding to the air of whimsical malice. And, of course, Widow City wouldn't be a quintesentially Fiery Furnaces album without a few confounding moments. "Widow City" begins with tumbling synth drums and pianos, segues into drunken vaudeville, then ends abruptly, as though the Friedburgers and crew were forced to hand over their instruments. Though it doesn't quite hold together as well as their best albums, Widow City has more than enough twists and tricks to keep Fiery Furnaces fans happy, and, once again, it sounds like the work of no other band.