I recently read something in a music review that blew my mind. I've seen some amazing things in my life - a solar eclipse, a cat wearing headphones, one of the most touching musical performances ever occurring in a Borders bookstore in Rapid City, South Dakota. I've been moved by emphatic words and resonating statements of purpose... been disturbed by manifestos and intrigued by philosophies. I've rejected religion and tea and embraced statistics and art. But I was not prepared for a particular sentence in a review I just read on the arts/culture/criticism site PopMatters.
Reviewer Justin Cober-Lake was writing about the Fiery Furnaces' 2005 album Rehearsing My Choir. (Yes, I'm allowed to read five-year-old music reviews; I had a lot going on back in '05. These days? Nothing but time.) Cober-Lake spend much of the piece lamenting that despite the fact that the Furnaces were getting "progressively better" over three previous albums, they continued to favor self-indulgent experimentation over short tight straightforwardly delivered pop songs.
Before I get to the sentence in question, let me respectfully disagree with the reviewer about that last sentiment. Asking the Friedberger siblings (Matthew and Eleanor aka The Fiery Furnaces) to cut back on experimentation is like asking a horticulturist not to work with plants. It's what they do.
Let's go back to the previous album Blueberry Boat. At first, I liked the song Paw Paw Tree because it sounded cool and had funny lyrics about mango mush (the best mush). Then I realized that the long slow nearly-two-minute lyricless slog at the beginning was the narrator-soldier's attempt at ensuring anonymity as (s)he comes to a clearing of silence (or a vista of allies).
And the she-singer playing the he-soldier is relaxed and just sitting up in that tree and the slogging beat with its quirky flourishes of melody and it's off-beat odd tones is the enemy. And no amount of tree camouflage will protect her. She/he will be mango mush.
So I'm trying to say there's a lot going on in that song and if it had been presented or performed in a straightforward pop-song way, it would not have worked nearly as well. Which brings us to Rehearsing My Choir.
In all fairness to the PopMatters reviewer, this is a difficult album to even approach. Despite having the finest vocalist of the 21st century in Eleanor Friedberger, the Fiery Furnaces decide to make their grandmother Olga Sarantos the album's primary voice. This decision is made perhaps because the subject matter of many of the songs is the mid-century Chicago of Greek immigrants (like Sarantos): the 1930s through the 1960s, small-time criminals and elevated trains.... knives used for making candy and for committing small-time crimes.... barely concealed back rooms and barely explained octets of priests.... and broken hearts. And if you were expecting the voice of a sweet old lady - perhaps a quiet, if coarse, wisdom lilting on the simple notes - your expectations would be dashed. You get a full voice, a masculine European ladymouth of syrup and finger-pointing storytelling. She's not pleasant. But she's present.
Which makes it rather amazing when Eleanor Friedberger's voice suddenly shows up, simultaneously sounding more sleek / professional AND less full-throated / full-ranged. Eleanor will sing a verse or two here, trade some lines, and then retreat back to the shadows as the grandmother sings the grandson's lyrics and you learn more about old Chicago than you ever would watching those old movies that you just knew simplified a complicated town.
But does the critic - the neglected-for-several-paragraphs Justin Cober-Lake - have a point, that these messy chorus-less songs, these narrative-less narrations aren't as good as the Fiery Furnace's songs? Well yeah but that's the price you to hear an experimenter. Sometimes, as is the case of Radiohead, the experiment adds nothing to the song (nor does it detract). Other times, as is the case of U2's Zooropa, the experiment justifies the band's existence. For the Fiery Furnaces, the experiment is the band. That's why Eleanor knows her lesser presence on Rehearsing My Choir's songs is nothing to get too upset about. She'll be the big star on the next album. This is Olga's time, that lovely grandma of ours.
What does Justin write? I'll be fair to him and put it in context:
"The previous album, Blueberry Boat stretched out the art-pop aesthetic with its songs in parts and large narratives, but the Furnaces have always been at their best when matching compelling hooks to intelligent lyrics. It’s about songwriting, not about Art. And now they’ve gone too far."
It's that last sentence that still slays me. And now they've gone too far. Really? Can an artist (capital A or not) really go too far? Of course. Pull up a chair; let me tell you about a young man named Billy Corgan. But the Fiery Furnaces went too far in the name of telling an as-yet-untold story, through the voices of three people from two generations. The story was made of songs busy with images and cluttered with ideas. They had to get out and make a city out of themselves. They needed the grandmother; the grandmother needed them. They had to go far. Maybe even too far. Too far is where the story lived.
Even the one story that stands out among the others on the album - track 2, The Wayward Granddaughter - needs a soaring stacked structure. The wayward one dated not one but two Kevins. The grandmother judged her for both of them, the black one and the white one. The "wh" sound in white is withering as it comes out of Olga's mouth. It's also the one song that needs a different era: the 1980s. And it's apparently a partially true tale about a different grandmother/granddaughter combo.
The way I see it is that there's not enough room in the band for the typical 10-12 songs every 16 months. They want more. And in order to write the tight ambitious pop masterpieces like Take Me Round Again off of their latest I'm Going Away... in order to create the cohesive-but-still-fucking-crazy song cycles like the entire album I'm Going Away, they needed to go even farther first with Rehearsing My Choir.
You can't stop progress, Mr. Cober-Lake. Progress needs to progress. Olga needs to sing. Eleanor needs to watch. Matt needs to preside. The other rotating members need to rotate their nights away,
A little more than two years after the album's release, the Fiery Furnaces would release two more albums and Olga Sarantos would die. Eleanor would sing better than before. Matthew - god bless him - would still be unable to sing his wonderful songs in an effective manner. The band would keep getting better and better.