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The Fiery Furnaces' Psychedelic Theater

On first listen, the Fiery Furnaces' Blueberry Boat is a mad mishmash of styles, stories, voices and images, careening wildly from epic tales of pirates and boats to quasi-lifelike sagas of annoying co-workers.  "Quay Cur," the 10-minute-plus opening track is, in itself, a rock-flavored Gilbert & Sullivan tale, built on recurring riffs in guitar, every kind of keyboard and voice, and emboldened by dramatic, if slightly nonsensical, monologues.

The theatrical air of Blueberry Boat is intentional, reinforced by a vaudeville-style piano and a sprinkling of vocal dialogues between brother Matt and sister Eleanor Friedberger. "The album was meant to sound like a school play with an old lady playing accompaniment," Matt Friedberger said during a recent interview. “As opposed to a clean, electric rhythm guitar.  Or a distorted electric guitar.  It's not supposed to take place in a rock club or someone's car while they're listening to Cheap Trick, though I love Cheap Trick, but it's supposed to sound like it takes place in a school or someone's home."

The Fiery Furnaces are, of course, the brother and sister duo who rocketed onto the music scene last fall with the release of Gallowsbird's Bark, a dizzying pastiche of psychedelia, sketched-out blues and semi-serious sea chanties.  At once charming and confounding, the stuffed-to-the-gills package was held together by Eleanor Friedberger's deadpan voice and her brother Matt's sly experimental commentary on it — a tinkle of pianos here, the roar of wah-wah there. There was a headlong rush to Gallowsbird's Bark, an almost out-of-control creativity that has, if anything, been intensified on the follow-up.

Friedberger says that The Who were a huge influence on him as he worked on Blueberry Boat, particularly the mini-opera phase of their career exemplified by "A Quick One While He's Away." He is fascinated by Kit Lambert, the band's mid-1960s manager, who pushed them toward a longer, campier style that he called "sustained ridiculousness."  "Lambert was a very interesting character," Friedberger said, "because he took the pop riffs seriously, but he also liked some camp stuff... the sort of blank-faced ridiculousness that pop music always was."  With "A Quick One" and "Rael 1" and "2" on heavy play last winter, Friedberger decided to take a stab at the long, playfully interconnected songs of Blueberry Boat.

"There are some musical connections between 'Quay Cur' and 'Blueberry Boat,'" he noted, "There's a tune that comes in at the end of the first part of Eleanor's singing that comes back in the end, and the other parts are based on it or related to it in some very crude but pseudo-musical way.  It reappears in 'Blueberry Boat,'" he said.  

Still, Friedberger cautioned that no one should confuse Blueberry Boat with a concept album. "It's long and annoying like a concept record, but it's not a concept record," he said, adding that, at some point, he hopes to record a full-length concept album.  He has an idea for one, in fact, but like Blueberry Boat, it has a nautical theme, and he doesn't want to get pigeonholed.

That hardly seems likely, given the sheer number of ideas and images embedded in Blueberry Boat, including, in several instances, the musical equivalent of jokes.  "None of the playing on the record is meant to be good because it's good playing," said Friedberger.  "It's meant either to be amusing or to fit the words.  The piano, it's very... it's very playful."  

For instance, at the end of "Blueberry Boat" as the pirates board the ship, there's a series of drunken, woozy piano chords.  "I thought it would be funny if, right then, there was this sort of shamelessly bad piano soloing as a kind of comment on what's going to happen," Friedberger explained. "Obviously it's all going to go wrong.  The ship is going to be taken over and people are going to get hurt, and I thought it was funny to put in this woozy drum set and parlor piano as a little comment on the action so far."

While Gallowsbird's Bark was anchored in real experience — Eleanor's travels through Europe — Blueberry Boat is more fanciful.  "Chris Michaels," one of the album's standout tracks, starts in the relatively mundane setting of a present-day office building, where the title character is roundly despised by co-workers.  Yet, when Chris Michaels' boyfriend breaks up with her, she flies off to India and somehow lands in the 19th century. "All the nonsense words in that song are taken from Hobbs Jobson, which is the old 19th century dictionary of Anglo-English," says Friedberger.  "It doesn't make any sense, because Chris Michaels leaves O'Hare and flys to India, and travels back in time, there's no real reason for that.  But hopefully it's detailed enough with the silly slang words used totally unidiomatically that it has some concreteness to it, even though it's obviously ridiculous."

Matt Friedberger said that he hopes listeners will not be put off by the album's long cuts, its bizarre story lines, its unusually busy arrangements or anything else that they might, at first, find troubling.  "I hope that people skip through the record, so that they don't hold the bits and pieces that seem ponderous and annoying to them at first — or maybe they will always seem that way — against parts that they might like," he said.  "There are plenty of records that I love that I hate parts of."

He added that he himself often likes albums like Blueberry Boat best the first crazy time he hears them. "Sometimes the first impression that you get is 'Well, that doesn't make any sense at all.'  It sounds crazy.  And often that's the most fun you have listening to it.  Then later, when you do figure it out, you like it, and then you think after a while that 'it's not as wild as I thought it was, it's not as interesting as I thought.'"

The Fiery Furnaces will be touring Australia with Franz Ferdinand this summer, then the U.S. in September and October. (See www.thefieryfurnaces.com for complete dates).  Friedberger said that the band will probably record its next album — a collaboration with his and Eleanor's 81-year-old grandmother — in November.  — Jennifer Kelly [Thursday, August 13, 2004]

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