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I’ve spent the past five Thanksgivings with other people’s families, and I can safely say that the stories are all pretty much the same. Whether it’s the one in which Aunt Millie gets drunk, forgets dinner, and sets fire to the pork roast or the one in which Uncle Ted gets drunk, embezzles money, and skips town with the meter maid, each of these presumably extraordinary tales is, to the outsider, just a string of names, places, and bad judgments. Funny thing is, I kind of enjoy the highlights of an extended family’s worth of bloopers—which has to at least partly explain why, after listening to the Fiery Furnaces’ new Rehearsing My Choir roughly 23 times, the thing is beginning to grow on me. Of course, spending nearly a day of your life with someone else’s almost-hourlong art-rock quasi–oral history isn’t the sort of thing that will appeal to just anybody. It’s not even the sort of thing that will appeal to your average indie-rock listener—especially when there’s plenty at which even an avowed Furnaces fan might roll his eyes: the old-time-radio-serial-style dramatics, the stacked-word storytelling, the presumed arrogance of a brother/sister band that’s so restless it simply must make a record starring its members’ grandmother.
But then again, self-indulgence of this sort is nothing new to the Brooklyn (by way of Oak Park, Ill.) duo of Matt and Eleanor Friedberger. Their bluesy 2003 debut, Gallowsbird’s Bark, though their most straightforward long-player to date, laid down the Furnaces’ kooky-reporting style with its herky-jerky songs and I-did-this-then-I-did-that brand of short-story telling. Their follow-up, 2004’s Blueberry Boat, took the idea a step further, its music playing more of a supporting role to the warped Gilbert & Sullivan opera of its lyrics. On Choir, the instrumentation seems almost incidental, with badly tuned upright piano, stomping organ, and squealing guitar framing the throaty warble of the Friedbergers’ octogenarian maternal grandmother, Olga Sarantos, as she tells the Roald Dahl’d story of her life. Once you come to terms with that unusual balance, some of Sarantos’ remembrances are pretty interesting—and some of the musical passages are as good as anything those Friedberger kids have released so far.
That isn’t to say that Choir is what you’d choose to throw on while hanging out with friends, while reading, or even while washing the dishes. It might not even be something you’d call music. The sounds swerve with little notice, sometimes returning as a leitmotif, sometimes not. But what can be most difficult to tolerate is Sarantos’ clotted old-lady voice, which is pushed way up front as she narrates tales that bounce wildly among the decades of the mid-20th century. And the relentless sincerity of it all can be taxing, too—and certainly resistant to the thoughtless, ironic embrace of that type of hipster who fell for such outsider acts as Wesley Willis and Daniel Johnston. But Sarantos’ vocals are also endearingly enthusiastic: She suitably overdramatizes every word of a story line that features a gypsy fortune teller, a villainous homosexual bishop, and some magical doughnut filling.
Opener “The Garfield El” chugs along on quick upright chords as Sarantos urges, “Faster hammers, faster hammers/Churn and turn into my late train to my lost love.” References to pianos and trains intertwine as a metal-on-metal squeal sounds off in the background and our heroine mourns for her dead husband. Then Eleanor’s voice joins the fray, as full of wordy bravado as ever: “Listen to those dead pianos, pins stuck in their hearts/Clang top bell, pedal-down deadwood, chipped and dulled-out steel/Rattlin’ and chatterin’ and chilly on a damp November afternoon.” The two voices combine on the line “ticktacks on round wire,” and the clamoring parts for a few seconds to make way for the glorious harmony.
The use of repeated musical phrases also helps provide some listener-friendliness. A soap-operatic chord progression echoes throughout the tracks, most heavily in “We Wrote Letters Everyday,” the story of Sarantos’ time apart from her husband while he was stationed in the Pacific. The lovely duet chorus of “We wrote letters every day/Which were later thrown away/And God knows what we wrote or what they said/But this is probably how they read” is answered by plaintive piano chords, the sound of lovers missing each other—which is immediately followed by chattery synth, the sound of lovers sharing the mundane details of daily life. The tune ends with a snippet from the couple’s wedding, a decently funny bit about the eight Greek Orthodox priests who presided over the ceremony, the dissonance of their eight voices chanting at once interpreted by Matt on his keyboard. It’s one of many moments on Choir when pleasant listening is sacrificed for story advancement.
Here and elsewhere, the notes serve the words faithfully and affectionately. Though certainly not as tuneful, the sounds on Choir are as carefully plotted—in that schizo Friedberger way—as those on either Gallowsbird’s Bark or Blueberry Boat. The spare keyboard figure that starts off “Slavin’ Away” leads to a comely bit of pop before breaking down into a plunky and meandering freestyle. But the track returns to its melodies in varied forms, enough to qualify as a song in the conventional sense. “The Wayward Granddaughter,” in which Sarantos and Eleanor play another pair, kicks off with a rubbery groove and Eleanor’s taking a traditional teen-rebel posture: “He said, ‘C’mon now, baby/Let’s take a little drive/Go slummin’ down at the Carsons’ in my black X5.’” She continues to spit attitude into the mike until the grandmother interjects with a tale about teenage hair-dyeing and jerk-dating. A punchy synth-and-harpsichord melody fittingly drives Eleanor’s teen angst, and the cha-cha inflection of Sarantos’ interludes is certifiably grandma-sounding. The narrative, which takes place just a few years ago, not only mirrors the dynamic that can exist between a teenager and her grandparent, but also brings together new and vintage sounds.
Of course, not every piece of this experiment comes together quite so well. Remarkably, the story in “Forty-Eight Twenty-Three Twenty-Second Street” is too spare. As a consequence, the music seems less focused, its piano meanderings suddenly giving way to a pulse-quickening samba section concerning evil dealings in the basement of a hat factory. The title track suffers the opposite problem, of having too many words, words, words for even this narrative-heavy album; the music gets out of the way by remaining little more than noodles. Barely more structured but much better is “Guns Under the Counter”—even though Eleanor and Sarantos engage a little too much in one of Choir’s major weaknesses: dorky call and response. Switching back and forth between Throbbing Gristle and toy-piano modes, the Furnaces indulge their love of location by rattling off a list of Windy City neighborhoods and intersections and their love of food references by conjuring a (real) doctor who owned a doughnut factory and his (made-up) blackberry-filling remedy for a gunshot wound. “Filling so filling, you didn’t need stitches!” interjects Eleanor, much like an excitable young granddaughter who’s heard this tale about a shootout at a Chicago bowling alley/lunch counter again and again.
At recent live shows, the Furnaces have been performing the Choir material as a sort of extended medley, sans Grandma. The lyrics that haven’t been cut are mostly reassigned to Eleanor, and with the music compressed into a rockin’er form, it’s much easier to hear the solid songwriting and clever motifs. Of course, a lot of what makes the album interesting to us 24th-time listeners gets lost in the band’s live tendency toward amped-up sameyness. There’s something to be said for the dramatic pauses and sharp turns. And there’s something to be said, too, about Grandma and the obvious joy in her voice. And why shouldn’t she be joyful? Choir is a sweet and loving tribute that stubbornly refuses to be experienced ironically. No matter how many times you try. CP