A double-disc debut would be an adventurous undertaking for most, but this is the almighty songwriting machine Matthew Friedberger. One half of sibling duo The Fiery Furnaces, Friedberger's reputation precedes him as he ventures into the world of solo albums. Everyone is clamoring to discover the unique sound of Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School. Ladies and gentlemen, have I got a revelation for you. You may want to sit down for this: welcome to the same old, same old.
This familiar territory I speak of isn't as scary as it may sound. In fact, this could very well be the album for those of you wanting to delve into anything Fiery Furnaces without the guilt of enjoying far-out melodies and hard-to-swallow experimentation. Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School is far more grounded than any Fiery Furnaces release. That is, if you've heard Blueberry Boat, Bitter Tea or even Rehearsing My Choir, these Friedberger solo albums may sway your opinion of The Fiery Furnaces. Friedberger is determined to make pop music, and in doing so he may have just watered-down his sound enough for those of you on the fence. So, without further ado – Matt Friedberger, allow me to introduce you to pop music. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to (re)introduce you to Matthew Friedberger.
Winter Women is hailed as Friedberger's pop album. I'm told it's infectious and accessible, but I've yet to find anything too convenient or catchy. In fact, Winter Women seems like nothing more than the remnants of the Furnaces' previous albums. I can imagine the Fiery Furnace-faithful lining up with their implements of destruction to throttle me for suggesting such a thing, but just listening to the record will provide all the proof you'll ever need. "Big Bill Crib and His Ladies of the Desert" is nothing more than the lazy tinkering of the piano over a lazy melody – the underachieving cousin of "The Garfield El." The ambitious "Motorman" is a malaise of missed opportunities – the confused doppelganger of the epic hymn "Chief Inspector Blancheflower." By now you've guessed it; Winter Women is like a glorified B-sides release. It's more of a disappointment, considering how strong EP was as a supposed throwaway.
Perhaps pop isn't Friedberger's thing. Perhaps the comfy confines of Holy Ghost Language School and its foray into sonic devilry is just what the doctor ordered. The album starts strong enough with "Seventh Loop Highway." Its mean-streets blues skronk and '80s video game synth could be a cure for your Winter Women hangover. The fun, however, refuses to last. Holy Ghost Language School devolves from the promised experimentalism into more chaotic pop. "The Cross and the Switchblade" is nothing more than a lifeless pop song, no matter how many weird and unusual sounds Friedberger tries to pile on top of the bland piano. "Topeka and San Antonio" is a feverish attempt at ragtime and classical music. It's a sloppy marriage that fails to transform into the expected grandiose cabaret. There are some unexpected moments of revelry. Friedberger does his best Mike Skinner impression during "Ship Scrap Beach Business" and follows up with the hip-hop-inspired "First Day of School." Both tracks hint at a new direction in Friedberger's sound, but neither can quite grab what they're reaching for.
It may not be fair to hold Winter Women and Holy Ghost Language School up to previous Fiery Furnaces releases, but considering that much of the content echoes the band's innovation, comparing the here and now with the past is inevitable. No matter how you want to face it, the secret is out: pop isn't Friedberger's bag. There is no forward movement. There is not one ounce of evidence as to why Friedberger felt that the songs from Winter Women and Holy Ghost Language School needed to be released on their own. Both discs are hard to plow through, and as with any double album, these tracks could have been shaved down to one decent album. Twenty-nine songs are just too much to digest, no matter how you break down the listens. Cut that number in half and it's still a lengthy and tiring album to get through. Not even a few appearances from Eleanor could have salvaged some of these ditties. For once, Friedberger's work mimics just about every other experimental pop release on the market. A sad day, indeed.
1. Under the Hood at the Paradise Garage
2. The Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company Resignation Letter
3. Up the River
4. Ruth vs. Rachel
5. Her Chinese Typewriter
6. Big Bill Crib and His Ladies of the Desert
7. Don't You Remember?
8. Bet You Don't!!!
9. P.S. 213 Mini-School
10. Theme from Never Going Home Again
12. Quick as Cupid
13. I Love You Cedric
14. Servant in Distress
Holy Ghost Language School:
1. Seventh Loop Highway
2. Holy Ghost Language School
3. The Cross and the Switchblade
4. I Started Using Alcohol at the Age of Eleven
5. Do You Like the Blondes?
6. Azusa St.
7. Topeka and San Antonio
9. Ship Scrap Beach Business
10. First Day of School
11. Things Were Going So Well
12. All in Vain or the Opposite