|The Fiery Furnaces|
The Fiery Furnaces — Blueberry Boat ♦♦♦ A brother/sister duo known for their inventive songwriting and a sprawling sound that draws on influences from indie rock to musical theater.
Location: New York City
Album release: July 13, 2004
Record Label: Rough Trade
01. Quay Cur (10:26)
02. Straight Street (5:01)
03. Blueberry Boat (9:09)
04. Chris Michaels (7:54)
05. Paw Paw Tree (4:39)
06. My Dog Was Lost But Now He’s Found (3:30)
07. Mason City (8:15)
08. Chief Inspector Blancheflower (8:58)
09. Spaniolated (3:22)
10. 1917 (4:53)
11. Birdie Brain (3:06)
12. Turning Round (2:13)
13. Wolf Notes (4:51)
Producer: Matthew Friedberger, Nicolas Vernhes
♦♦♦ The Fiery Furnaces — Packaging
♦♦♦ Eleanor Friedberger — Group member, Singer
♦♦♦ Matthew Friedberger — Producer, group member
♦♦♦ Samara Lubelski — Violin, engineer, mixing
♦♦♦ David Muller — Drums on 3, 4, 7
♦♦♦ Emily Scholnick — Artwork
♦♦♦ Nicolas Vernhes — Engineer, mixing, computer editing, drums on 2, 4, 13
♦♦♦ 2004 Blueberry Boat Top Heatseekers #40
Music and lyrics:
♦♦♦ More than twenty different instruments were used in the creation of this album, including the sitar, which was substituted for guitar on some songs. Keyboards, guitars, and drums are the main instruments used. As with all Fiery Furnaces releases, Eleanor Friedberger provides most of the vocals, with her brother Matt adding to a few songs. Matt is considered the main instrumentalist for the band, while both Friedbergers share lyrical duties. The album is more structurally complex than the band's debut, Gallowsbird’s Bark, and most of the songs have distinct movements that sound like multiple songs combined.
♦♦♦ The song "Straight Street" references the biblical “street called straight” in Damascus. “1917” features references to the 1917 World Series, the most recent series that the Chicago White Sox had won at the point this album was released.
♦♦♦ Restless sonic chameleons the Fiery Furnaces revolve around the brother and sister duo of Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, whose prickly childhood relationship and musical family set the stage for their playful, unpredictable music. The Friedbergers’ grandmother was a musician and choir director at a Greek Orthodox church near the family's home in Oak Park, IL; their mother, who had a penchant for Gilbert & Sullivan, played piano and guitar and sang; and throughout school, Matthew played standup bass. While the Friedbergers weren’t the closest of siblings growing up, after college and separate trips abroad they returned to Oak Park and began working on music together. The pair mixed simple, poppy melodies with a dizzying array of wordplay, sounds, and influences, including the Who, Captain Beefheart, Os Mutantes; dashes of folk, blues, and garage rock; and Eleanor’s adventures in Europe. In 2000, they moved to Brooklyn, took day jobs, and began playing as the Fiery Furnaces late in the year.
♦♦♦ The Furnaces played their initial gigs at a small club called Enid's and branched out from there, going through several lineups of supporting musicians as they played gigs with the French Kicks, Sleater–Kinney, and Spoon. In 2002, they began working on their first album. By the time they signed to Rough Trade on the basis of their demo, their debut, Gallowsbird's Bark, was completed and the Fiery Furnaces were already at work on the follow–up. Gallowsbird's Bark arrived in fall 2003 and won critical acclaim for its charming kitchen–sink feel, but the band gained more momentum the following year, when praise for the debut album dovetailed with the release of the group's even more diverse and challenging sophomore album, Blueberry Boat, that summer.
♦♦♦ The Fiery Furnaces spent much of 2004 touring with Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, Franz Ferdinand, and the Shins, but were already working on their third and fourth albums. Early in 2005, the Furnaces released the simply titled EP, a mini–album gathering most of their B–sides along with a few new songs. That fall, the band returned with Rehearsing My Choir, a challenging stream–of–consciousness album featuring the Friedbergers' grandmother, Olga Sarantos. They moved to Fat Possum for Bitter Tea, a collection of poppier songs that arrived in spring 2006. The following year, the Fiery Furnaces switched to Thrill Jockey and spent the summer and fall touring in anticipation of the ‘70s rock–influenced Widow City, which was released in October 2007 and was mixed by Tortoise's John McEntire. Remember, a sprawling live album that spliced different versions of the same songs together into collage–like tracks, followed in 2008. That fall and into winter 2009, the Fiery Furnaces recorded I'm Going Away, a simpler, more stripped–down collection that drew on the warm sounds of '70s and '80s TV show theme songs like Taxi for inspiration. The album came out in summer 2009, by which point the band was already working on other ideas, including their "silent record," an album in book form, and their "Democ–Rock" project, which allowed fans of the band to vote on the group's creative process.
Review by Heather Phares; Score: ****
♦♦♦ Overflowing with creativity and energy, fueled by a cheery restlessness, the Fiery Furnaces are perhaps the most charmingly difficult rock band in years. Most acts wait a few albums to unleash their rock operas and concept albums, but just as Gallowsbird's Bark seemed to contain several albums’ worth of ideas and melodies (that often sounded like they were playing at once), the Fiery Furnaces skip ahead and deliver the fascinating, vaguely conceptual, and only occasionally frustrating Blueberry Boat less than a year after their debut. The band packs even more stuff into these 13 songs, nearly all of which have distinct movements that sound like two or three times as many tracks. Stories about pirates, Spain, a love triangle, a girl kidnapped into white slavery, World War I, and (of course) blueberries are surrounded by strange noises and twists that act like funhouse mirrors, stretching and warping the album’s essentially simple melodies until they're about to fall apart. At times, Blueberry Boat sounds like it was made entirely out of the noodly bits that most other bands would junk for being too weird and difficult, but the Fiery Furnaces forge them into an album that's both more pop and more radical than Gallowsbird’s Bark. Granted, it’s not a total change from the band’s previous material: Gallowsbird's Bark's medley–like "Inca Rag/Name Game" and "Tropical Ice–Land/Rub–Alcohol Blues/We Got the Plague" suggested that the band really wanted to make multifaceted epics that stretch out to ten minutes or thereabouts (of which there are four on this album).
♦♦♦ The rootless, rambling, travelogue feel of their debut remains, but Blueberry Boat feels more like a breakneck tour through different kinds of music — around the canon in 80 minutes. Keyboards, drum machines, samples, loops, and computer manipulation abound, giving the album a sparkly, colder sonic palette that feels like an equal and opposite reaction to the earth–toned garage–folk–blues of Gallowsbird's Bark. The bright, bold title track — the tale of the hapless captain of a blueberry boat beset by pirates — is one of the most striking examples of the album's new sounds: starting with a busy signal–like loop backed by a faux hip–hop beat, the song quickly shifts to a wheezy, shuffling rhythm and steep slide guitars; carnival organs make way for relatively down–to–earth guitars, pianos, and keyboards before beginning all over again. As the captain, Eleanor Friedberger goes down with the ship and her blueberries, and this kind of perversely stubborn bravery mirrors the band's fearless artistic leaps.
♦♦♦ The Fiery Furnaces disorient their listeners and then charm them, or charm them by disorienting them; fortunately, because their music actually is pretty charming, this tactic usually works. At their best, their albums feel like the adventures of the Friedberger siblings; Eleanor's voice is as aloof and, er, fiery as ever, although she sounds downright gentle on "Turning Round." Matthew Friedberger sings more on Blueberry Boat, and his quieter delivery makes a striking contrast to his sister's more attention–getting vocals. But sometimes they sound almost like the same person, especially on the strangely sing–songy melody of "Quay Cur," one of many songs with lyrics as insanely detailed as the sounds that surround them. On top of the many allusions and references in the album — which include Beanie Babies, Sir Robert Grayson, OxyContin, and Damascus computer cafes — dazzling, obscure wordplay like "you geeched that gazoon's gow" fill out more than a few songs. You could say that the Friedbergers' stream–of–consciousness approach nearly reaches Joyce levels, but that would be pretentious, and while Blueberry Boat might seem pretentious on paper, it's actually just playfully brainy. The delightful "Birdie Brain" rails against the march of progress and technology (and antiquated technology, like steam trains and livery cars, at that) against a backdrop of twinkly synths straight out of the PBS astronomy show Star Hustler.
♦♦♦ Blueberry Boat sounds like it was made for and by people with highly developed long and short attention spans; it's an album of children's songs for adults. This is especially apparent than on "Chief Inspector Blancheflower." It begins as a story about a boy unable to concentrate long enough to get good grades but with a sharp focus for details like "tickets, tangibles, chips and stars." Matthew Friedberger's lead vocal is backed by a tweaked, babyish one, mimicking the song's flashback lyrics. It's a clever trick, and at times, the album threatens to drown in its own wittiness, but every now and then there's a briefly emotional moment that's more powerful than an entire ballad would be; the instrumental coda at the end of "Blancheflower" is one of these glimpses. The band also has a gift for making the strange sound familiar and the familiar sound strange: on "Chris Michaels" they pay homage to the Who, the past masters of rock operas and concept albums. Eleanor plays the emotive Roger Daltrey to Matthew's more reflective, pensive Pete Townshend, and the song's rapid–fire riffs, big pianos, and mix of stomping rock with plaintive interludes is pure Who — although the Who never wrote a rock opera that involves getting arrested for credit card fraud and escaping from the Bombay Army. But, fortunately, the Fiery Furnaces did. As engaging as the album can be, it’s still a lot to digest; in the wrong mood, it can feel like too much time spent at the amusement park. Blueberry Boat can be appreciated in the same way you would a puzzle box with intricate, endlessly shifting parts: you can spend a lot of time trying to unlock (or describe) its riddles, or just enjoy the artfulness behind them.
|The Fiery Furnaces|