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Divide and Convolute 

The Fiery Furnaces' Blueberry Boat has indie rockers confused: Are the brother-sister pair hacks, geniuses, or somehow both?

Wednesday, Oct 13 2004
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"There's a section right after the beginning part where a Casio's playing quite fast and then a piano and a drum kit come in and they play this very hectic, cartoony-sounding thing. And eventually, a couple pianos and an organ come in to play this big chromatic scale going up. And that's meant to indicate that Eleanor has found her sunfish. There's a portion in the song about her sunfish running away after stealing a beer from a party boat and she's kind of stumbling at first down the lake, trying to sail away ... and it's a huge container ship and she's the captain of the container ship. And that's where the story proper picks up."

This is what Matt Friedberger, (evil?) genius and brother portion of New York-by-way-of-Oak Park, Ill., experimental indie rock brother-sister duo the Fiery Furnaces, has to say about the title track to the band's second album, Blueberry Boat. Which is the correct response to such a statement? A) "That is the fucking raddest thing I've ever heard and I can't wait to go impress all my friends and shock my co-workers with my newfound super-hipster insider knowledge of one of the strangest, most brilliant groups out there right now." B) "What. The. Fuck?"

If you chose A), you are already well on your way to becoming a fully indoctrinated, Kool-Aid-drinking (blueberry-flavored, of course) devotee of the Fiery Furnaces (in fact, have you thought about changing your name to Friedberger?). And believe me, you are not alone. Since its release in July, Blueberry Boat has proven to be one of the most polarizing albums to hit the indie music world this year or any other. And the more the Blenders and the Rolling Stones have questioned Blueberry Boat's warped patchwork-quilt aesthetic, the more hipster music Web sites like Pitchfork Media and PopMatters.com have championed it.

But even as both factions entrench themselves in the age-old "Is it art or is it crap?" debate (also known as the "I'm hipper than you" nyah nyah death match), the question that usually goes unanswered is, is this album even fun to listen to? It may very well be, but then again, with the Fiery Furnaces' creative process of piling dense conceptual layer atop dense conceptual layer, whether or not one actually enjoys listening to Blueberry Boat may not be the point. Nyah nyah.

The Fiery Furnaces were forged out of years of sibling rivalry, tempered only by joint musical tastes, between Matt and his sister Eleanor. So, after plenty of requisite skirmishing in their childhood home and time spent in such exotic locales as London, Texas, and Champaign-Urbana, Ill., the Friedbergers made the only logical decision for warring siblings raised musically by the Who and a grandmother who plays organ at a Greek Orthodox church: move to Brooklyn and start a band together. While playing small club gigs, the Friedbergers began to hone the messy, idiosyncratic rock songs that would constitute their 2002 debut for Rough Trade, Gallowsbird's Bark.

"Honed" is perhaps an inappropriate word to describe that album. Bark is a dizzying smorgasbord of Pete Townshend licks, garage-rock buzz, post-punk strut, country-blues saunter, circus-y chromatic scales, vaudeville-by-way-of-Randy-Newman piano, and too many other elements to mention. It seems designed to sound, well, undesigned -- or at least spontaneous. Each track is, however, anchored by Eleanor's swaggering alto as it voices nursery rhyme narratives about her travels abroad and through her imagination. The album was undoubtedly one of the strangest, boldest crapshoots of that year.

But if Bark is a cluttered collage of sounds, then Blueberry Boat is schizophrenic decoupage. The tracks on Bark were bizarre, they were experimental, they were eccentric -- but they were accessible. And they were short. Like a mad scientist with a postmodernism fetish, Boat works up all the quirkiness of Bark into a frothing collection of epic-length (for a rock album), multipart tracks.

The result is at times awe-inspiring, at times difficult, and at times downright infuriating -- sometimes all within one song. The opening track, "Quay Cur," begins with dissonant piano chords and ominous, thundering beats that sound like the faceless personification of doom marching ever closer to its prey. Then Eleanor comes in (mirrored by a spooky synth) with a lilting vocal line, singing a fairy-tale-gone-wrong about a silver locket torn from her neck by a "killick" while she was "canvassing the quayside trying to earn my keep."

Suddenly, the song breaks into a swift sprint, naughty little acoustic and electric guitars jogging alongside Eleanor and Matt as they meet "a looby, a lordant, a lagerhead, lozel, a lungio, [and a] lathback" and then rapidly spin off into a hurricane of nautical references. It's like an alliteration-happy 8-year-old's version of The Odyssey.

But wait. We're not done yet, because Eleanor's infamous Inuit passage (taken from, according to Matt, Richard Huklyut's attempts to transcribe the language in Voyages in Search of the Northwest Passage) is still to come.

And this is the nature of nearly every track on the album, be it 10-plus minutes (like "Quay Cur") or a more conventional three. The record has drawn comparisons to the Who's minioperas "A Quick One" and "Rael," and Matt definitely lists those pieces as influences. But he also identifies Blueberry Boat as program music, which isn't the same thing as opera and which might be a more apt description.

While opera certainly tells a story, the story is secondary to the grandiose themes and sentiments that puff the genre up into the campy colossus that draws both drooling zeal and disparaging disgust. Program music, on the other hand, is about oozing the story out of the music's every pore, from a fleeting piano solo to a recurring melodic motif to the slightest whisper from a snare drum; each sound, whether it's meant to stand for a narrative detail or a character nuance, adds its bit, and taken as a whole, they flesh out the body and limbs of the story.

The individual tracks of Blueberry Boat are mixed so that, while Eleanor's voice is higher in the mix, her vocals, holding tightly to an unobtrusive little five-note range for the most part, are practically on equal footing with the rest of the layers. Matt explains this aesthetic thusly: "[W]hat I think a lot of people find as the annoying music on the record is supposed to be program music, is supposed to tell the story the way the vocals do ... one is the picture and one is the dialogue, so to speak."

As Matt suggests, program music is a trying genre to begin with, but the Fiery Furnaces' program music is complicated further. For example, the band has taken to playing what Matt calls a "47-minute medley of our songs, the first two albums all jumbled together, backwards and forwards," during its live shows.

Matt's justification for this trick is that he likes "to have these little, real simple parts and you put them in different contexts and it could be interesting. You know, why not not stop playing for 45 minutes?" That the band has the ability to mix and match parts of its songs speaks to both Matt's genius as an impresario and Eleanor's capacity for remembering lyrics. But this little gimmick does tend to, to put it mildly, convolute the tale they are trying to drive home with all that programming.

And this is the other difficulty with Blueberry Boat -- every minutia of the music is about the story, but what the hell is the story talking about? And do we care? Whether they want to or not, the Fiery Furnaces make us work not only to understand, but also to even appreciate the music. And once one has put all the work in on Blueberry Boat, is one either thrilled or revolted enough to have made that work worth it? Is it Joyce or bad Beat poetry? Is it John Cage or a marching band geek's tinkering with Bitches Brew?

After another lengthy description of the programmatic elements of the title track, Matt laughs and says, "Obviously, that sounds like a bunch of bullshit. But, you know, there's nothing wrong with a bunch of bullshit." And more than a propensity for pastiche or an aptitude for alliterative storytelling or even a desire to revive the miniopera, that willingness to embrace both the greatness and the crap, just so long as you're trying to do something, is the Fiery Furnaces' true genius and the album's claim to fun and entertainment. In the band's creative approach and our attempts to like it, the process, rather than the product, is the point. (How's that for alliteration, Friedbergers?)

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Rachel Devitt

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