The Fiery Furnaces
istening to Blueberry Boat for the first time back in early April, it struck me immediately that the Fiery Furnaces had used The Who’s seminal mini-suite “A Quick One While He’s Away” as the primary stylistic template for their own rambling, schizophrenic batch of disjointed story-songs.
Last week I received the press kit for the album, which included a straight-forward statement of purpose from brother-and-sister band principals Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger, an odd-enough addendum to the typically PR-penned set of indie-rock promotion materials. Instead of staunchly disavowing or even coyly avoiding their obvious Roger idolatry, the Friedbergers expressly acknowledged The Who’s influence and readily labeled Blueberry Boat as their attempt to recreate the band’s pioneering proto-rock-opera sound.
Now, this wasn’t some namelessly inauspicious, artistically amorphous band trying to manufacture buzz by likening themselves to an easily-identifiable legacy. The Furnaces already possessed their own uniquely scattershot style, an engaging mixture of blues, punk, indie-rock, sea chanteys, and musical theatre, and moreover the band already had released a debut album in 2003, Gallowsbird’s Bark, that garnered them heaps of critical kudos and a smattering of Next Big Thing hype.
So what would provoke an exceedingly individualistic, sufficiently unbeholden band to pledge such slavish devotion to a classic rock titan?
I hoped the set-smashing, maximum R&B; mod-rockers themselves would help me figure it out. If the Friedbergers sincerely believed all the answers could be found in "A Quick One While He's Away," then perhaps they'd be waiting there for me as well.
Her man's been gone / For nigh on a year
Again, the Furnaces are barely a year removed from Gallowsbird's Bark, their whirligig of a debut record, an album that certainly laid the groundwork for Blueberry Boat's mutant-blues madness and quioxtic lyrical absurdity, but didn't anticipate its structural ambition in the slightest. Such an accelerated artistic "evolution" (ironically in quotes since arguably the newly-imposed structure is less inventive than the previous non-structure) suggests Blueberry Boat might be more of an anomaly than a permanent philosophical shift (and the Friedbergers' allusions to a Beat-inspired third album only corroborate that theory).
Down your street your crying is a well known sound
Of course, the openly mischevious Friedbergers' worshipful invocation of The Who as spiritual forbears and predetermined sonic blueprint could just be a red herring (after all, the Beatles did mini-suites as well), if not for a few places where inspiration bleeds into mimicry. Chief among the suspects is "Chris Michaels," which holds the paradoxical distinction of being Blueberry Boat's least original and most exciting seven-plus minutes, edging towards copyright infringement in the drum-kit department thanks to some blatantly Keith Moon-channeled fills, not to mention the liberal borrowing of Pete Townshend's patented guitar crescendo.
Your town is very famous for the little girl / Whose cries can be heard all around the world
Sure, there might be some moments when the Furnaces live up (or down) to that self- pigeonholed press, but if Gallowsbird's Bark taught us nothing else, it's that this band is far too clever to stay in one place for very long. Blueberry Boat is by no means an ape-fest of the boys-only British Invasion, and the Furnaces' departure from that tired-ass patrimony begins and ends with its leading lady, Eleanor Friedberger, and her uniquely eccentric post-punk energy. Just peep the title track, an epic, endlessly fascinating yarn that sets Eleanor as a prideful but stern blueberry boat captain ("switch off the porn," she commands a deckhand), besieged by swashbucklers who try to separate Capt. Friedberger from her precious cargo, so precious in fact that she gladly follows it overboard to her watery death. Goofy and fantastical for sure, but Eleanor carries it off with well-acted aplomb, a not-so-secret weapon she likewise brandishes on the opening track, "Quay Cur," and the delightful interlude "I Lost My Dog."
We have a remedy / You’ll appreciate
Simply put, the Furnaces are far too strangely idiosyncratic and genuinely wonderful to be anything but their own uniquely unprecedented beat. Hearing Blueberry Boat just confirms that their stunning pop sense is every bit as developed as the early Who's without being the least bit similar. As discoveries go, it's less about defending the band's self-sustainability than it is about pointing the way out for indie-rock as a whole, and more specifically the genre's notorious history of contrived fun. There's nothing the least bit deliberate in Eleanor's gloriously unexpected entrance to disco keyboard chords on "Inspector Blancheflower," or the casually guileless way she delivers the chorus on the perfectly relaxed blues of "Paw Paw Tree" (which doubles as a pretty accurate description of why the Furnaces' blues sounds livelier and more authentic than the White Stripes—because they're individual rather than traditional, personal expression filtered through collective consciousness rather than the other way around).
Just ‘cause he’s late / Don’t mean he’ll never get through
And don't forget the other Friedberger, Matthew, who writes the lion's share of material but sometimes feels like an afterthought simply because he gets far less mic time than Eleanor. Matthew's vocal allocation's been ratcheted up tenfold since Gallowsbird's Bark, and here he offers crucial counterpoint on "Quay Cur," "Chris Michaels," and the title track, and even provides the initial explication on "Inspector Blancheflower."
Dang, dang, dang, dang, dang, dang, dang, dang, dang
In the end, that's the best gift the Furnaces have to offer, the simple power of their own joyful racket and clatter, the pure holy hell they always seem to raise.
You are forgiven / You are forgiven / You are forgiven
Which is more than sufficient to excuse the band’s few shortcomings and flaws without hesitation—namely the dam-bursting length of the album (YOU ARE FORGIVEN), the occasionally unfocused lyrical gobbledygook (YOU ARE FORGIVEN), and those infrequent lengthy sections when not much happens and the Furnaces lack the chops to sustain momentum (YOU ARE FORGIVEN).
You are forgiven forgiven forgiven forgiven forgiven forgivenforgivenforgivenforgiven
YOU ARE FORGIVEN!!!!!!
You’re forgiven. Bomp bomp.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM’S ALBUM OF THE WEEK – JULY 12 – JULY 18, 2004