The Fiery Furnaces
Styles: indie rock, folk, blues, post-punk, experimental, cabaret, theatrical
Others: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Bob Dylan, Captain Beefheart
Um, yeah. OR, they could do that.
What was to be done by Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger after releasing one of 2003's most easily recognizable and catchiest records? Having already established themselves as worthy torchbearers of the mixed genre take on new wave blues-pop with The Gallowsbird's Bark, the siblings stood poised to put a damper on the pretty peppermint party of Meg and Jack for good. The Fiery Furnaces' debut was a rollicking gem of sparsely crafted ditties of chaotic dog walks, icy tropics, and Cracker Barrel dumpster finds, delivered with a confident post-punk swagger, yet completely unpretentious in its tin pan alley trot. It was one of those flawless formulas of sweetness without sap that the Brooklyn duo unleashed upon the ever jaded New York scene to swarms of hipster accolades. The stage was set for the siblings Furnace to get huge. Some greasy bigwig at Sony or Reprise must have had a careful eye on the further developments with a boney trigger finger hovering above the "capitalize on and destroy" button. It was the moment of truth; what would be the next move? Well, how's about a 76 minute semi-concept album, complete with nine minute mini-epics, schizophrenic tempo changes, and a song about blueberry pirates. A daring departure, a tremendously bold move, or as my friend Eryn so succinctly put it, "Man, The Fiery Furnaces went crazy." And with that, the Sony executive shook his head, sighed, and took a late lunch.
It only takes a good half a minute or so of the warped faux-hip hop beat and two-chord descending piano progression of "Quay Cur" to throw out all preconceived notions you may have had about the Furnaces. As the modulated effects-laden drama builds and swells you get the sense that you are in for a doozy of a song and quite possibly more. Any initial disorientation is forgotten by the time Eleanor's familiar Patti Smith-esque drawl chimes in as we set to sea but soon returns with the first abrupt shift in timing, instrumentation, and narrator. By the time the song's final keys ring out, you may feel a tad out of breath at the theatrical whirlwind just encountered (a heffed up HMS Pinafore, perhaps); but press on you must. Save for only a few songs, the majority of tracks are characterized by this fairly regular and sometimes quite unexpected change in movements. The aforementioned album opener has about six different parts alone, adding up to nearly ten minutes.
Another aspect of the album that will become readily apparent with the first song is the pair's quite idiosyncratic lyrical style. The two are fine storytellers and have a refined, yet very simplistic manner about them. Matthew in particular has a great propensity for Joyceian wordplay. Eleanor likes to make up words altogether (or at least cull from languages that I have no knowledge in). At times it's difficult to distinguish the real from the gibberish as in "a looby, a lorden, a loggerhead losel/ a lungy old laughback and me a proposal." Their resilient childlike approach to song crafting and lyricism is one of the key characteristics that keeps the sprawling Blueberry Boat from sounding merely like overboiled, pretentious excess. It sounds ANYTHING but that. If it is a concept album, it seems to only be greatly noticeable through the first three tracks, but I'm starting to believe that the world of The Fiery Furnaces is kind of like the quantum realm, it makes sense only within its own rules, so in this respect, perhaps the concept is simply beyond me.
One of the most interesting facets of the album is how, for a band that rose to a laudable level of popularity with maddeningly catchy melodies, here they never seem to let any hook last long enough to take hold before veering tangentially in a whole new direction. "Mason City" starts off as a mid tempo, handclap percussion, Beatles-inspired piano pop number and Eleanor's vocals are as dewy as they come: "like Des Moines on several matters and I'm near annoyed/ ladle thick the pleasant lattice, then comes the point." But then in breaks Matthew in a gruff and downturned (and tempoed) tone flusteredly giving suggestions for cross country directions before morphing into several further incarnations. It is not, however, hard to grow accustomed to such ebbs and flows for a patient listener, and they become much more appreciable with repeated listens. Patience, patience, patience. What else is to be said about Matthew's oration about his childhood attention deficit disorder (and yes, I don't think he's quite shaken that yet) and his police force recruitment set to Atari-era inspired keyboards in "Inspector Blancheflower" then, just bear with it. Whenever it seems that the song is simply devolving exponentially into being worthy of the skip button, they never fail to surprise you with an incredible payoff.
After epic tales of would be blueberry pillagers as on the title track and the hierarchical love triangles of "Chris Michaels," the album's climax comes in a most unexpectedly poignant place in the unsuspecting "1917." After easily the most disjointed minutes of the album, a jumble of circus synthesizers and aimless guitar noodling as Matthew talks about... something, I guess (remember about the ADD?), a triumphant crash ushers in an absolutely gorgeously orchestrated piano line as Eleanor coos repeatedly "So I asked Dad, why can't we ever win, ever win once?" It seems so simple, but after an album of such unnerving departure and change, such a simple line over a simple melody is uncannily moving.
I must say, this is a bitch of an album to review for one main reason in particular. You have to trust me on it. It's hard to talk about nine minute songs with askew changes from leftfield, without some people being put off right on the spot. Somehow, it all works though! It will never lead you too far out without reeling you back in at the very moment you thought you were set adrift forever. Yes, there are a couple tracks that are straightforward enough to be adored right off the bat ("I Lost My Dog" and "Bird Brain"), but for the most part, Blueberry Boat must be afforded multiple listens. On first or second spin, the potential of it is evident. All that is missing is the Rosetta Stone, as it were. But this will come at around the fourth or fifth time through. You must speak their language. You must explore the subtleties of their worthy vessel. Once you do, however, no doubt will be left in your mind that The Fiery Furnaces have made one of the most ambitious and, quite likely, one of the best records of 2004.
1. Quay Cur
2. Straight Street
3. Blueberry Boat
4. Chris Michaels
5. Paw Paw Tree
6. I Lost My Dog
7. Mason City
8. Inspector Blancheflower
11. Bird Brain
12. Catamaran Man