More than likely, you won’t make time for the Fiery Furnaces. In this era of the sound clip, fewer and fewer music geeks seem to have time for difficult bands that make difficult records. Since the way we hear new music has changed from such patience-demanding media as college radio, late-night cable shows, and homemade mix tapes to the instantly downloadable buffet of the Internet, we can now dismiss records within seconds. For a band like the Fiery Furnaces, which has just released a second album on which five of 13 songs run longer than seven minutes, that’s not even an instant.
Oh, I’ve clicked and dumped, too: For Stars, Simon Finn, Ebony Rhythm Band, the Junior Boys, the Polyphonic Spree, the Race, the Apes, the Album Leaf, A.C. Newman, PJ Harvey, Cambodian Cassette Archives. Thirty seconds is enough time to hate anything—even Cambodian garage rock. Sure, people bought OutKast’s recent double-album in droves, but I suspect that was only on the strength of the record’s most conventional pop tune, the Beatlesque “Hey Ya!” And the rock mainstream’s last stab at a difficult album was probably Radiohead’s Kid A, which found the band using tricks picked up from the then-underground glitch-pop movement to flesh out what ultimately remained a standard alterna sound. No wonder people still like the Hives.
A few months ago, when my copy of the Furnaces’ new Blueberry Boat arrived in the mail, I received a warning. It’s gonna take a few listens, the duo’s publicist offered, adding in an e-mail, “It’s definitely not for beginners.” Aside from having the effect of pumping me up—I’m not a beginner!—her prerelease caveat turned out to be far from the usual hype. In fact, it was dead-on. A week after the record’s release, CMJ’s message board boasted at least one Furnaces whiner: “Sorry, I’m not sure I want to invest the time into listening to Blueberry Boat. Maybe I’m being lazy.”
No need to apologize: The critics at Spin and the New York Times have been just as lazy. At issue isn’t what would normally kill off a band like the Fiery Furnaces—that they are victims of geography (another group from Brooklyn), victims of genealogy (another brother-sister act), or victims of genre (another band steeped in the blooze). No, at issue is that the album really does take an investment of time. Call it the difficult-album jinx, the too-much-ambition jinx, whatever, the critics agree: The songs are too long! It’s their way of saying that they scanned the track list and discovered that it runs 76 minutes.
But length is only part of it. Web-posters and rock scribes also find Blueberry Boat suspect because it’s a record of dozens and dozens of ideas. None of its melodies or attendant tangents are easily apprehended in the usual ways, even by those who’ve listened to the Furnaces before.
The title track was the first to leak onto the ’Net; I found it a few months ago on Fluxbox, a New York City blog. I had already fallen for the Furnaces after finally digesting their 2003 debut, Gallowsbird’s Bark. It took six months for me to want never to stop listening to that album. I had become addicted to the band, but this new tune was another story.
“Blueberry Boat” was a slippery thing. Keyboards that blurted across my speakers, a bad head-nod beat that went all blustery and then nearly dropped out. Guitar took its place, sliding down octaves like a busted sonar blip. Finally, singer-guitarist Eleanor Friedberger woke up and cast the song out: “Pontoon put-put with the tape on 10/Dixie cup pink wine in the Labor Day sunshine.”
If you didn’t click out, you found real goose-bump-inducing beauty. Did it matter that the song melted down into discordant No Wave performed by 10-year-old carnies wielding kazoos, autoharps, and Jeff Lynne’s synthesizers? Or that the lyrics seemed to answer the question of what might happen if Patrick O’Brian wrote IHOP menus? Or that it all took a break for an odd cocktail-jazz piano interlude around the seven-minute mark? Or that the protagonist refused to relinquish her blueberries to pirates and ended up at the bottom of the ocean with her cargo?
It was all slightly embarrassing and exhausting, but it also made me want to give up listening to anything else. So I stayed with it and became a drooling idiot muttering to friends, “Dude, did you hear the sound clip?”
Of course, that was never enough. The sound clip provided just a keyhole into the Furnaces’ world, the domain of Friedberger and her multi-instrumentalist brother, Matthew Friedberger. The two grew up in Oak Park, Ill., and started playing together only when they ended up sharing an apartment in New York. Think a functional Carpenters built on the possibility of what two people can do in a room with cheap equipment, a love of weird-sounding proper nouns, and a worn-out copy of The Who Sell Out. If they want to mash up ragtime with ’70s sing-a-longs with Townshend windmills with…Well, they can.
Full of clipped and clattery songs, Gallowsbird’s Bark felt completely of its Nuggets-damaged time. On the other hand, there were references to listening to “classic VH,” dumpster-diving at Cracker Barrel, and an atlas index’s worth of place names. If the whole thing tilted toward garage rock, it carried none of the genre’s cock-rock swagger—classic VH or not. Sure, Eleanor got pigeonholed as a Patti Smith clone, but I suspect that was based solely on the fact that they share a haircut. There’s nothing shamanistic about their Broadway-by-way-of-the-basement vocals.
Blueberry Boat, with its seafaring theme and musical ADD, settles for no place or every place. It’s psych without being psychedelic, folk without being folky, prog without having to be called that. If the Furnaces even touch on garage rock this time, it’s only as a starting point, not a destination—they love a good non sequitur over a good climax every time.
Because the album is such an unwieldy thing, you’re liable to grab hold of the most evocative lyrics first: “At Dawn I had a scotch and made them switch off the porn/Cause there’s nothing that’s dirty about the ocean in the morn” (“Blueberry Boat”); “Tea time at Damascus computer cafe” (“Straight Street”); “Raisins from her zip-lock bag” and “Hundreds of electric-selectrics, all messed up” and “Parthenon Business Machine Remediation outfit” (“Chief Inspector Blancheflower”). I could go on, but I’m starting to sound like such a stoner.
And that’s the thing: In isolation, any given piece of Blueberry Boat comes across like David Foster Wallace between Pabsts, or like a Decemberists record defrocked of its art-fagginess. But the whole is something else, a fully realized universe that’s surprising and strange, yeah, but also solid and believable. What makes the album brilliant is that the duo appear motivated only by their own expectations of each other.
“Blancheflower,” for example, is a finely observed loser’s tale in the classic mode, albeit one about a guy who has to deal with not only broken dreams of working as an office-machine repairman but also brotherly betrayal. “Well I rode up to Springfield on my motorcycle/And I’s gonna stay with my younger brother Michael/Mom’s oxycontins and the Amstel Light,” Matthew sings around the five-minute mark. “But I noticed I was doing most of the talking that night/So I got both remotes and turned off the DVD/And said Michael is there something that you need to say to me?/Well I don’t know how to tell you/…I started seeing Jenny/My Jenny?/And he looked down at the floor.”
If the big songs seem overwhelming, understand that they are crafted in distinct parts, each representing shifting moods and points of view. Opener “Quay Cur” is over 10 minutes and contains 10 sections, starting with fuzzed-out beats that sound like boots sloshing through mud and continuing through some bittersweet singing supposedly in Inuit and moving on to a blanket of whirly synths. The song, about a shipmate cast away at sea, is the band’s Mason & Dixon, trading Pynchon’s the Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke for the Friedbergers’ own Sir Edward Pepsi.
“Blancheflower” pairs autoharp with Funkadelic-style helium harmonies before turning into the cheesiest Elton John song you’ve secretly wanted to hear. “Mason City,” by contrast, starts with hand claps and piano chords and Eleanor singing sweetly about a secret missive before devolving into stuttering drums and Matthew’s instructions for a train journey. And then, of course, it all changes.
The majority of Blueberry Boat’s songs don’t end but dissipate into intrigue. The most-Who-like “Chris Michaels” centers around the name on a stolen credit card. The chirpy blues of “Straight Street” concerns the worries of a cell-phone saleswoman. The Space Age campfire singalong “Mason City” deals with the secret dealings of…insurance. Despite their wealth of narrative detail, the tracks don’t tell you everything.
The album closes with “Wolf Notes,” a sort of call to arms, a mission statement for what the Fiery Furnaces do. At the beginning, beneath a keyboard that shimmers like heat off an afternoon highway, Eleanor croons to her bro: “Plug in your keyboard/Your symphonic sound samba Samsung/Pick out a tune today/Turn off your radio/Shut away your stereo/Put away your discman/And play me a tune today.” At the end, in the distance and under all that symphonic sound samba, you can hear Matthew holler out, “Play it one more time.” Whatever you take away from Blueberry Boat, you should at least seize on that idea: Do it again, because anything is possible. You just have to listen.CP