Winter Women / Holy Ghost Language School
C / C-
ould we all have miscalculated Rehearsing My Choir this badly? At the time, the abusively difficult album seemed a detour in the Fiery Furnaces march toward art-rock institution, a simple misunderstanding: great underground rock albums are invariably followed by a bland re-hashing, essentially giving Rolling Stone and Spin a chance to catch up. So those who drank the Blueberry Kool-Aid patiently awaited Fiery Furnaces Play “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” while Matt and Eleanor Friedberger miced their verbose grandma-ma. These things happen.
But in the wake of the vanilla Bitter Tea and the new-born Matthew Friedberger solo double-dip Winter Women / Holy Ghost Language School, Rehearsing sounds prescient: the beginning of a distinctly worse Fiery Furnaces entity, one that cares little for the fetishized piano-blues pop of their debut or the sublime, hearty blend of myth-making and gadgetry that was Blueberry Boat. Ladies and gentlemen, the real Matthew Friedberger: ostentatious, hyper, whispering, lost.
Holy Ghost treads the same spoken-word territory as Rehearsing, and it all but forces us to think of Matthew Friedberger not as the Richard Thompson to Eleanor’s Linda, but rather a distinct, malignant music-making force who operates more like a producer and arranger than a songwriter; this is likely the reason no one really understood Rehearsing. It is the reason no one will understand Holy Ghost.
Holy Ghost takes a lot of chances musically, and Friedberger’s voice often sounds shoehorned into the mix. The result is a series of whispered/spoken tracks that may or may not form a more complete whole. They don’t sound much like the makings of a pop record, and more importantly, they are almost impossible to care about.
With virtually no traditional melodic content, Holy Ghost relies on gargled keyboards, funky guitar leads, and stop-and-go tempos. On “Do You Like Blondes?” Friedberger fuses a strutting low end with a nine-year-old’s snare hits and Orson Welles’s flying saucers; it’s a striking arrangement, but mostly because it sounds like it was never meant to have structure in the first place. Understanding this should help explain the Furnaces’ weird obsession with storytelling (rather than singing), but it doesn’t add a whole lot of emotional gravitas to Holy Ghost, which ends up sounding impersonal and unaffecting—a brilliant musical mind fucking around with synth tones and drum machines.
Winter Women, while not the polar opposite of Holy Ghost, is considerably leaner and contains the best hooks we’ve heard from a Friedberger since Blueberry Boat. His songs are still awkward and heavy on studio tomfuckery, but most of them at least feature a guitar or piano as an emotional or melodic anchor, and the album’s peaks feel generally more tenable. “Up the River” is a straightforward piano/harmonica tumble, stealing its opening chords from Tom Waits’ “Martha.” “Ruth Versus Richard” hijacks a Cali vibe and remains playful and engrossing throughout. Not pop brilliance, but there’s enough heft here to wish that Friedberger showed a bit more personality. His vocals are strangely muted throughout much of the album, such that any examination of lyrics and motives is exasperating. “Theme from Never Going Home Again” is especially tough, a warm synth-pop ballad with vocals so buried that it’s a hard slog even with its short run-time. Save it for Eleanor? Maybe, but Winter Women, even with herky-jerky abortions like “Motorman” and “I Love You Cedric,” at least makes a case for Matthew plain and tall.
When the second half of Winter Women shoots holes in the goodwill built up during the first half, it makes one wonder: boredom? Contempt? Naivete? Hubris? Give Friedberger credit for diversity, craftsmanship, and the unprecedented ability to release a double album that actually feels composed of two separate entities. The rest of it? Too much, too fast. We hardly know one another anymore.