Let’s get this straight first of all – this isn’t an average album. Right from the first listen, it’s patently obvious that opinion is going to be polarised here. Nobody is going to listen to Rehearsing My Choir and describe it, with a casual shrug, as “so so”. Such is the complexity, I’m still having trouble deciding whether to love it or hate it – always an intriguing position to be in.
Even before this release, Chicago brother and sister duo Matt and Eleanor Friedberger had a well-earned reputation for pushing miles beyond the boundaries of indie pop, courtesy mainly of their celebrated 2004 box of tricks Blueberry Boat. This epic 80 minute dash through an infinity of musical styles provided the listener with a considerable challenge, albeit a rewarding one. Next to Rehearsing My Choir however, it was a stroll in the park.
OK, now it is time to utter those dreaded words: ‘Concept Album’. For that is what we have here. Essentially, Rehearsing My Choir is a family reunion set to music, centred on the monologues of the most unusual of guest vocalists – Matt and Eleanor’s 83-year old grandmother, Olga Sanatos. Many aspects of Olga’s life and loves are explored through her deep, quivering voice – her early love and current longing for her late husband; her early memories of the kids childhood tribulations; and a multitude of tales from the distant past recalled in minute detail – much as your own grandma would. There’s humour, tenderness, poignancy and trivia aplenty in her lengthy dialogue.
Swirling round her words is music impossible to describe without mentioning those other dreaded words from the 1970s: ‘Prog Rock’. Conventional song structures are almost completely abandoned, leaving essentially an operatic approach that 1975 Genesis might have been proud to be associated with. Gulp.
This coupled with the in-jokes and ‘you had to be there’ recollections of Olga makes one wonder exactly what’s in it for the rest of us amidst this grand self-indulgence. But, then again there are still many moments where it all seems to click into place. The Wayward Granddaughter is the closest to a conventional song we’ll get, a weird dance-pop shuffle underlaying the tale of Eleanor’s dreaded first boyfriends – both called Kevin, two friends who met at “Joey Meyer’s Red White and Blue Demon basketball seminar tutorial clinic day-care camp for underprivileged kids and over-stimulated brats”!
The nine minute Seven Silver Curses is perhaps the musical highlight, featuring some welcome scratchy Beefheart guitar breaks amongst contrasting Hammond organ and harpsichord beauty. Olga’s voice blends with the music superbly on harpsichord-bathed opener The Garfield El; her repeated refrains of “Faster Hammers! A late train to my lost love” provide a rare hook for the beleaguered listener to grasp onto, before winding down to a wonderful coda: “..this tune sounds like a condolence card bought at the last minute for someone you can’t stand..and isn’t it cute? La la la.”
There’s so much to this album I’ve barely scratched the surface. It’ll probably be the subject of a degree course in 10 years time. But is it any good? Oh gawd, I still don’t know. Just buy it and make your own mind up.