The Fiery Furnaces are a brother and sister duo, Matt and Eleanor Friedberger, from New York whose debut album Gallowsbird’s Bark marked them out as a quirky little outfit that specialised in strange blues-folk jams. A tour with Franz Ferdinand earlier this year gave them more exposure, and Blueberry Boat is the quickly recorded follow up.
If you thought Gallowsbird’s Bark was a challenging album, then it was positively S Club 8 compared to Blueberry Boat. A 76 minute long opus, filled with nonsensical lyrics (“A guardsman gave a griffin said grease my duke, Down by the chimney and out through the fluke, a looby, a lordant, a lagerhead, lozel, a lungio lathback made me a proposal” anyone?), tracks that go on for over ten minutes, and several moments that make Radiohead‘s more obtuse moments sound accessible, this is not an album for the faint hearted.
Although the term progressive rock is enough to make some people run screaming for the hills, Blueberry Boat is worth taking the time to get to know – just about. For there’s a thin line between ambitious invention and pretentious nonsense, and there are more than a few times on this album where The Fiery Furnaces disappear on a voyage up their own backside.
For instance, opening track Quay Cur is just insane. A long introduction consisting of apparently random noises drifts on until Eleanor Friedberger’s vocals appear, chanting a nursery rhyme-style couplet of “and now I’ll never, never, never feel like I am safe again” until the tempo cranks up mid-song and brother Matt takes over the vocals. If it had finished after about five minutes, everything would have been fine, but the band have to fit in as much strange atmospherics as possible and drag the song out far past its natural lifespan.
When they stick to the simple stuff though, The Fiery Furnaces sound unbelievably exciting. Straight Song deserves an award for its opening lyric of “Tea time at Damascus computer cafe, I’m looking busy and staring off the other way. Leverkusen, Juventus; Leeds vs. Valencia: I’m over-hearing all their nonsense in extensia”, while My Dog Was Lost But Now He’s Found manages to make the tale of a lost dog sound like the most important thing on earth.
Yet it would be a brave individual who could sit through the entire album – the first half of Chief Inspector Blancheflower is almost unlistenable, with its droning keyboards and Matt Frieburger’s flat vocals. Luckily, things pick up once Eleanor takes over, but the damage has been done by this time. Similarly, the title track sounds like a ride on some kind of nightmare funfair attraction, the swirling keyboard creating a level of menace that would be atmospheric if someone had remembered to write a tune somewhere.
The Friedbergers are an undoubtedly talented duo who deserve kudos for producing this wildly ambitious album so early on in their career. There are moments of genius here to be sure, but they’re often overshadowed by some ridiculously self-indulgent noodling. If they can keep a tighter hand on their excesses, something marvellous could well be produced – as it is however, Blueberry Boat could well end up as one of those albums people buy but keep on their shelves, unplayed for years.