Review Summary: at the big stage clinic, my friends said, man, don't be a cynic
Ridiculously complex, The Fiery Furnaces’ sophomore release, the expansive, excellent Blueberry Boat
, was so far removed from the album that preceded it and more or less any indie album that preceded it that I’m surprised that it isn’t cited more often as one of the high points musically of this decade. Released in 2004, at a time where band members Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger, who are also brother and sister, were more known for their hip garage-blues-rock rockers and minimalistic sound, it’s obvious to see why this album was such a revolutionary. Heavily debated upon release--it was given a 9.7 by Pitchfork and a 1 from NME--Blueberry Boat
is admittedly a complex and sometimes confusing listen, yet it’s never too avant-garde that it becomes unlistenable, and songs are often more melodic and catchy than weird. Think of this as a mix between a more challenging Flaming Lips and a more enjoyable Broken Social Scene.
But that just doesn’t really do the trick as a suitable description, now does it? And as much as I hate to say it, Blueberry Boat
is one of those albums that comes dangerously close to completely defying description. I mean, just take a gander at the first selection, titled “Quay Cur”. Opening with a throbbing electronic beat with alternating piano chords that add a more natural layer, the track seems more like a poppier, less threatening Kid A
B-side; the “less threatening” part coming from Eleanor’s floating, free-folk-ish vocals. This creates an interesting and ultra-melodic soundscape, but one that you’re sure won’t satisfy the song’s ten-minute runtime. Out of nowhere, thankfully and surprisingly, you’re greeted with acoustic guitars, Matthew’s warm vocals, and then before you can say “run-on sentence”, the track quickly moves into a guitar freak-out. Notice I said “moves” in that last sentence, and not “segues”, “transitions”, or any other two-bit verb. That’s because musical changes in any composition on this album happen abruptly, without any warning at all. Moving beyond that first track, you’ll find that many tracks contain this intentionally choppy sequencing. Instrumentation is all composed by Matthew, who apparently used more than twenty different instruments to formulate this heavily unpredictable sound and awkward sequencing. The effect is one that is either adored by admirers or annoys the living hell out of detractors, and personally, I find that they keep these “mini-operas” rather interesting with this imaginative style of song structure.
“Mini-opera” is a term that can describe a lot of songs here: five tracks on Blueberry Boat
stretch past the seven-and-a-half minute mark, including the excellent title track, which happens to be the most experimental thing attempted here and simultaneously happens to succeed as the best song on the album. Beginning with an electro-industrial riff, the track vaporizes each previous verse and genre completely, leaving behind the dust with which “Blueberry Boat” builds upon itself again, switching from electro-pop to moody folk to a heavily experimental piano section that could be compared to the weirdness created by pianists like John Cage. Lasting nine minutes, The Fiery Furnaces manage to hold your undivided attention for all of them. Other weird mini-operas, such as “Mason City” and “Chief Inspector Blancheflower”, are just as interesting and captivating as the title track, yet are little bit bland compared to the awesomeness of that title track and “Quay Cur”. They’re estimable efforts, and come very close to supreme excellence, but moments in each, like a folk section that’s just a bit too sweet compared to the drone-ish dirge of the rest of “Mason City”, along with a face-palming turntable part in that same track that’ll make you wish that this duo wasn’t quite that
creative. But than the song ends with a hair-raisingly awesome guitar solo and everything is righted again. Just when you’re sure there’s about to be a unlistenable mess-up, The Fiery Furnaces manage to add that last bit on at the end to make everything fine and dandy again.
You’ll probably be happy to know that Blueberry Boat
is thankfully not completely stuffed with these undisputable epics; there are in fact many songs found here that are just as pop-influenced as anything you’d hear from more “hip” indie bands like The Shins or Broken Social Scene. “Straight Street”, which is possibly self-referential through its title, is the best straight-forward track on Blueberry Boat
, beginning with a salty Chuck Berry-esque riff and then segueing cleanly into a piano-based, ragtime-influenced bouncer, with added instrumentation that ranges from static-y guitars, synths, violins, and Eleanor’s calm and controlled vocals. The latter half of the album is filled with more poppish tunes than the first, and it’s not too ludicrous to think that these more straight-forward tracks are more of afterthoughts to bulk up Blueberry Boat
than anything as innovative as tracks like “Quay Cur”. But don’t fret; songs like the poignant “Spaniolated” and the mournful ballad “Turning Round” are great, with the latter being a bluesy highlight of the album. “Wolf Notes” ends the album on a rather unsatisfactory note, however, being a tired mix of “psychedelic” keyboard effects, awkward piano playing, and dueling brotherly/sisterly vocals that just don’t work
. On an album where this duo basically tries out every freaky idea they’ve ever had, it’s a bit of a shame that they decide to close their most creative adventure with something that delves just a bit into pretentiousness.
But Blueberry Boat
, for the most part, is an idiosyncratic and eclectic album that manages to simultaneously be a complete joy to listen to, but without a bit of work. It’s sort of like Infinite Jest
, an esteemed postmodernist novel from David Foster Wallace, in that it takes easily comprehensible parts from popular styles, such as catchy melodies and soothing vocals, and mixes it with the most challenging of elements. Most of all, though, you just have to try this out. It’s hard as hell to describe a seemingly endlessly shifting ten-minute piece, and you can’t really get a full impact unless you listen to this, and listen to this, and listen to this. Because once you start, it’s near impossible to stop.