“Um, yeah. OR, they could do that.” – Tiny Mix Tapes review of Blueberry Boat
That statement, with its implied bemusement and confusion, functions as a concise summary of the beguiling genius and frustration of the brother, sister duo The Fiery Furnaces. Through an at times divisive, if not downright annoying, series of albums and live shows, Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger’s The Fiery Furnaces went from indie darlings, to indie pariahs, to mostly ignored before going on permanent hiatus in 2011. Since then Matt and Eleanor have focused largely on their solo careers: pleasant and accomplished pop records in Eleanor’s case, and restless, experimental curiosities in Matt’s case. Unfortunately, with that split a strange alchemical balance seems to have been lost. The Fiery Furnaces offered a unique blend of the accomplished and the infuriating, the silly and the literary.
The now defunct Stylus Magazine ranked Blueberry Boat it’s number one album of 2004. A user with the handle, morninghollow, took issue with them choosing it over Arcade Fire’s Funeral: “Whereas Blueberry Boat represents music as escapism, Funeral is music as life-affirmation. By choosing to rank Blueberry Boat so high, Stylus has made a definite choice for artifice over authenticity, for clever lyrics, clever riffing, and odd transitions over human feeling.” In the grand scheme of things, I’m not sure which album is better, or if they even be reasonably compared. But it always struck me as interesting that Blueberry Boat would come off as escapism or artifice. Surely, the Friedberger’s approach their themes and lyrics through byzantine characterizations and narrative structure, but it seems a bit unusual to associate that, apparently, with superficiality. In my brain I have always linked The Fiery Furnaces with Thomas Pynchon, there’s a certain juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the sublime in both. Or perhaps, the sublime through the ridiculous.
The Fiery Furnaces are not cold, though they may be evasive.
Prelude: Gallowsbird’s Bark
I came to Gallowsbird’s Bark late, so it is somewhat unusual for me to start with it. In my mind, it’s hardly the most interesting release, and may, in fact, be the least essential. Nevertheless, it offers a useful prelude for what is to come. It’s probably useful to point out that there were more than one comparison to The White Stripes when this album came out (a notion increasingly ridiculous with the following albums). Part of that touch point may have been a brother sister duo (even more retrospectively ridiculous, though the ambiguity of Jack and Meg White’s relationship was still firmly in place in 2003), but there is enough simple arrangements and white blues Southern stomp to not make it totally ludicrous.
The main value of Gallowsbird’s Bark, at this point is to spot the idiosyncrasies that were to come, particularly arrangements that juxtapose disparate musical elements:
opening drone and synthesizer whirs, jump in right after a much more conventional piano fill outro of I’m Gonna Run. Also evident here are an emphasis on place names (apparently a lot of the lyrics were written by Eleanor after traveling around Europe), and highly alliterative lyrics. See
It’s difficult to grasp how unexpected of turn it must’ve been to put this on after the relatively conventional Gallowsbird’s Bark. For a start, the first song,
, is over ten minutes long, more than twice as long as anything on the first album. Add to that the fact that it starts with over two minutes of heavy synthesizer before Eleanor, her voice possibly artificially pitched higher, even starts. And it just gets weirder from there. It’s a suite of suites. Five of the thirteen tracks stretch longer than five minutes and veer in many different directions. Obviously inspired by The Who’s A Quick One While He’s Away (the song), The Fiery Furnaces throw everything at the wall, and then throw the wall in the kitchen sink, and then forget the metaphor.
I could really talk about Blueberry Boat for much longer than anyone would care to hear. I had not listened to it in a while before I started writing this Artist Spotlight, and immediately upon starting it, all of its power and emotion hit me again. It’s perhaps only rivaled by Joanna Newsom’s Ys in my personal pantheon of albums that I wouldn’t mind spending the rest of my life over analyzing. Its inventive arrangements that my pitiful musical vocabulary is unequipped to discuss, its nimble wordplay, its careful balance between prog and aughts internet indie, even its last quarter where it all kind of falls apart. Thankfully, for you, I’m just going to briefly focus on the narrative inventiveness of
. Along with The Decemberists’ The Island, it’s one of a very few songs that gives its narrative largely through juxtaposition, letting the listener stitch it together. However, whereas The Island can be threaded with post-colonialism and The Tempest, Chief Inspector Blancheflower seems to hang together mostly through unreliable narrators, and impossible nested narratives that never cohere. A young boy with apparently exaggerated learning disabilities struggles to cope with school and what he wants to be when he grows up. He comes up with joining the police force, but the narrative shifts to some half remembered Masterpiece Theater mystery involving stage coaches and farmers threatening tea with their sword. Then the narrative shifts again after the inspector recalls sharing a Woodpecker Cider with a local fratricider. Now, it’s an earnest drama, where a man, after finding out that his brother is dating his ex-girlfriend, confronts her with the delusional notion that she’s trying to mess with his brother to get back at him. Each section is linked to the previous one with a somewhat appropriate transition, but it doesn’t cohere. Has this whole narrative spun out of the young boy’s head? Is there any ‘real’ narrator at all? To me, the ambiguity of this narrative signifies a winking mastery of the form, a mini-postmodern masterpiece with a squelching guitar solo at the end.
I could go on, in addition to Chief Inspector Blancheflower, all of the other ‘suites’ are worth your time, the aforementioned Quay Curr,
They would never again reach such consistent quality, though their next doubled down on the left turn alienation to such a degree that they burned any goodwill their ‘promising’ debut garnered.
Rehearsing My Choir
Between Blueberry Boat’s release in July of 2004 and the release of their third album, Rehearsing My Choir, in October 2005, The Fiery Furnaces put out EP, a collection of singles and b-sides from before Blueberry Boat. It certainly has its highlights, including
, but it is what it is: a compilation of tracks between the first and second album. Still, I think some publications thought it signaled a return to a poppier catchier form.
It was not.
Hints were there before the release of Rehearsing My Choir and its advanced nine-minute single
. The band made it no secret that the record would be a concept album, and that it would heavily feature their aging grandmother, Olga Sarantos. But don’t worry, they said, she was in a choir and knows how to sing. Well she was in a choir, and she probably knew how to sing quite well, but she doesn’t do much singing on the record. She mostly talks. And if the elliptical narrative of Chief Inspector Blancheflower seems pretentious and obnoxious, the rambling alliterative couplets of Rehearsing My Choir will be toe curlingly infuriating.
Certainly many outlets thought so. Far more divisive than Blueberry Boat, Rehearsing My Choir is a steep hill to climb. But like most challenges, it pays dividends if you give it the time. Olga’s rasp delivers a nonlinear and fantastical reflection of a life lived in Chicago. Matt’s lyrics keep the true story at a distance, though much of it is based on Olga’s life and reflections. Still the memories tumble out more like a lightly facilitated oral history than an actual structure narrative.
And perhaps the most striking tracks are deviations. Special mention goes to the second track,
, which breaks from Olga’s story to reflect on a different unnamed grandmother’s relationship with her granddaughter, Connie. I want to particularly point out the following lyric:
Olga: My daughter, we named her Maureen
Can you believe it–
Eleanor: I never believed it, or her
Olga: Because she called you Connie
The Don Juan he, my husband, loved redheards and thought this name
Would turn his baby into the same
And each time I see you, Connie–
Olga: I say God bless, my dear departed Peter
That he never had to meet her
His beautiful granddaughter who dyed
It would have killed him again
Her gorgeous red-brown hair black
When she turned 15 behind my back
I emphasize the last part to point out it’s intentionally serpentine construction. ‘His beautiful granddaughter who dyed, it would have killed him again!’ In the printed lyrics, it’s obvious that she died her hair, of course, but there’s a pun here with dying, emphasized by the ‘it would have killed him again!’. And that loss is later driven home by ‘When she turned 15 behind my back’. The whole emphasized portion, it’s clear, is to say that, at 15, without the grandmother’s knowledge, her granddaughter dyed her hair black. But with the interruptions, and syntax, it can also read that When the granddaughter turned 15 without her grandmother realizing it (turned 15 behind my back), she died (that is the granddaughter, the child in her died). It’s this kind of playfulness that really gets at the heart of The Fiery Furnaces value for me.
may be the emotional center of the album, despite it also being a deviation of Olga’s narrative. Here Olga imagines the hardships of working women, in The Fiery Furnaces typically unreliable narrator way. But it’s the wistful singing that Eleanor brings to it, and the almost gospel like emotional releases bring a cathartic longing not present, or attempted, in other parts of the album.
Except, perhaps in the album’s closer
particularly it’s sublime climax. Olga complains about all of the factors preventing her from properly mourning or celebrating a past friend/lover(?). A broken piano, his wife, traffic and construction interrupting the ceremony. But she finds beauty and comfort, perhaps in the sun setting in the sleet.
Calcification: Bitter Tea & Widow City and I’m Going Away
After Rehearsing my Choir, the Friedberger’s could be viewed as stepping back from ambition. Bitter Tea, their next album still retained a lot of the weirdness, mostly, in this case coming from a curious use of backmasking. But the conceptual ambition was mostly lost.
And, unfortunately, my ambition has been largely exhausted by having an unexpected migraine last night. So I can’t write with nearly as much verbosity (probably a good thing), for any more of the albums. They’re all recommended, but they’re not masterpieces. After Bitter Tea, Widow City came out, which may be the most solid of their albums, but also the least interesting. I would highly recommend you seek it out on vinyl, not for any difference in sound quality (though it’s a nice pressing), but because the album seems very well suited to listen to in quarter chunks. This effect can easily be recreated by the cunning use of playlists that break the running time up.
Despite my time having run out, and my guilt rising in spending a good chuck of my work day writing about a band for a, almost certainly, rather minuscule (though very important!) audience, The Fiery Furnaces’ I’m Going Away deserves special mention. In many ways, it’s a return to the form of Gallowsbird’s Bark, re-embracing a sort of blues. In many ways it may be their best album if you’re hoping for traditional songs. It’s certainly good, and could maybe be called their Loaded. Almost a way to end it saying, look we sure can play accessible music if we want.
I could go on, describing the deviation between siblings that resulted in Eleanor’s excellent solo records and Matthew’s headscratching endeavors, but alas my guilt is burbling up.
Instead, here’s a playlist of all the songs I’ve mentioned and an apology for all my inevitable typos.