The Fiery Furnaces - Blueberry Boat
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Let’s get right to it: this album is decent, but absolutely must, for the sake of all of our dignities, be taken to task. I’ll be a little militaristic, but in this case it seems worth forsaking the finer points of style for clarity of argument.
The lyrics. There are a whole lot of words on this album. To their credit, the Friedbergers have constructed a rich, complex world of everyday minutiae peppered with un-pretentious references to rather un-poetic materials (a Discman, Pepsi, Amstel Light, Oxycontin, the “DQ”), assertively couching itself in its own period—a colorful time capsule. On the other hand, Blueberry Boat boasts some of the worst lyrics I’ve heard in a very long time; there’s still nothing impressive or cool about third grade homework verse by 20-somethings, unless you’re, well, in third grade, or just have some weird jones for half-baked poetics. Now, the disclaimer here is that harmlessly goofy lyrics are usually less wince-worthy than terrible ultra-serious lyrics, but still, it cuts the record down to a very human height. “I Lost My Dog” is the easiest pick here, opening with “I kicked my dog, I was mean to him before, I guess that’s why he walked out my door / I really wish I could see him some more.” At which point, a befuddled Eleanor looks clumsily under the “mats,” asking the “cats,” and the “vet” if he’d seen him “yet,” and oh, it snowballs from there. By the time you get to the punch line—the dog is at church, the dog has been "found"—it seems ultra-clever, almost great. Furthermore, reading it as a metaphor or an allegory (or whatever other tricks you’ve got that turn shit to gold) is just a naïve and ridiculous form of critical coddling. On most of the record, it seems that the lyrics have unfortunately tried to substitute scope and sheer volume for quality, phrasing things in the most basic and unimaginative ways possible, not fully exercising their potential; on the whole, they’re simply neither here nor there.
Occasionally, the lyrical structure of the songs are able to nicely take advantage of the pesudo-Broadway/operatic flow of the music, as in the dialogue between Michael’s brother and Jenny in “Inspector Brancheflower,” a well-paced and absolutely effective back and forth. On most of the record, however, the music seems to have been developed with uncomfortable independence from the lyrics, and stanzas end up awkwardly flailing their arms between bars with disastrous results. The siblings’ mouths either overflow with syllables they need to spout out as soon as possible, or wait awkwardly to finish a line (the most clunky example being “Spaniolated”’s hilarious “how ya doin’…….. my daughter?”)—these things could theoretically be worked out, but instead they get shoved in with little compromise. Also, they call it “flow” for a reason, and even when the lyrics fit, Eleanor rushes to the end of bars or just plain tramples the curves of the music with a blunt, careless delivery. Even if it’s “purposeful,” it’s just off-putting more than anything.
On structure and history: too much of the press for this record referred to either The Who or progressive rock, and I’ll tackle the comparisons one at a time. The Who: alright, The Who recorded some songs that are more “operatic,” insofar as they have a few parts to them, and a story weaves itself through the song. The thing about “A Quick One While He’s Away,” however (or “Rael,” etc.), is that it seems to utilize the shifts in structure to augment the arc of the story, making it an organic, beautifully developed statement: there’s the a capella introduction, the sprawling exposition, the dusty Western balladry of “we’ll soon be home,” and then the frazzled, emotive throb of the reunion, bursting into the chaotic glory of the song’s indelible climax. Each musical passage mirrors the lyrical content, making it genuinely “operatic.” Blueberry Boat doesn’t really do that, and when it manages to even a little bit, i.e. the release into delicate yearning that concludes “Chris Michaels,” for example, it’s not all that compelling. Furthermore, there’s something distressing and jarring about the way it all fits together. “A Quick One” is segmented, but ultimately more than the sum of it’s parts; it doesn’t feel as unpleasantly disoriented as many of post-Pro Tools cut-and-paste transitions of Blueberry Boat.
As a side note: listening to the original tapes for the Beach Boys’ Smile, one can hear the vast stylistic consideration of certain themes or melodies; all of the pieces of “Heroes and Villains,” get cast and re-cast as cowboy film music, throwback doo-wop, etc., or the reiterations of the “bicycle rider” theme, and so on. Blueberry Boat aspires, within its songs, to create a similar pattern of leitmotifs, but the idea in principle isn’t enough to make it interesting music, and the resurfacing themes on “Quay Cur,” for example, just seem like poorly-explored formalistic pretensions rather than thoughtful development and recontextualization of a melodic figure.
As far as prog-rock goes, well, the comparison seems even more pale and superficial. Good progressive rock is, frankly, great: Genesis, King Crimson, Rush, Yes, or even Can (depending on who you ask)—lots of great material (and the list goes on). Bill Bruford of King Crimson once boasted that they were the only band he could’ve been in that played in 7/16 time and also got to stay in a nice hotel room. But it doesn’t take a lot to see that the Fiery Furnaces, save some isolated moments, don’t stop on any particularly shiny dimes, and none of the performances on the record, vocal or instrumental, are really very skillful, though the drumming is probably the consistently best playing on the record. I’m not saying that this record sucks because they aren’t all ponytailed studio-machines with a bucketful of hot licks that coolly juxtapose duples in 5/4 against soaring 64ths, but only that it makes the “prog rock” thing pretty tenuous, especially since the songs seem to aspire to a similar level of structural complexity. A more frustrated side note: the guitar solos. Are they supposed to be ironic? On the whole, it’s directionless “shredding” of the absolute lowest line, like stuffing as many notes with no shape whatsoever into a minute or so-these moments should’ve simply been cut, especially on the end passage of “Inspector Brancheflower,” where Matt’s amateurish wanking leaves a terrible taste after one of the best-executed works on the record.
At any rate, the only thing the Fiery Furnaces have in common with progressive rock or The Who is that they occasionally verge on total self-indulgence and make some long songs with different parts. For the record, having a lot of parts to your songs is not the same as being a prog-rock band. Almost any longer work by Genesis (off the top of my head, “A Firth of Fifth,” “In The Cage,” and the extra-huge “Supper’s Ready”) simply towers over the Fiery Furnaces in both complexity and grace, making smooth, dazzling transitions despite the tendency towards occasional bombast, and any of The Who’s more elaborate work has more vitality and compositional dynamicism than basically all of the Friedberger’s pseudo-suites.
A word, or several, on the palette of the record. There’s nothing terrible about the feel of it, but too much of it reeks of “wow! This keyboard makes some crazy sounds!”: technology/synths aren’t used as particularly effective tools, and it’s much of this material that sounds especially arbitrary or poorly thought out, creating a kind of aborted rock-electronic hybrid rather than anything particularly grand. Sometimes, it’s just simply grating, like waiting through the already middling first three minutes of “1917,” made further unappetizing by the totally thoughtless tremolo’d synth part that wiggles around incessantly. Or the arrhythmic arpeggiator programs that coat what seems like half of the record—it never really adds anything whatsoever (except maybe the album-closer “Wolfnotes,” a stoned-out meta-pop song that is, for me, one of the highlights), and the fact that they’re just running a preset makes the flourish feel even less inventive.
Some of the songs are plain lifeless: “Paw-Paw Tree,” “Mason City,” and “Spaniolated” are basically forgettable, and given the length of the album, their inclusion borders either on pure antagonism or careless insult. Blueberry Boat, without any doubt in my mind, would’ve made a much better 45 minute record if they had someone there (I think they’re called “producers”) to cut out, at the expense of their precious yet sometimes irritating “artistry,” some of the weaker, more pointless stretches. Or maybe even a really, really good EP (something the band can do, as evidenced by this year’s EP). At best, it’s charming in a really pleasant but ultimately un-astonishing manner (“Straight Street,” “Chris Michaels,” “Inspector Brancheflower,” “Wolfnotes”), and at worst, it suffers from total self-indulgence and a host of uncomfortable pretenses, buckling under its own wild ambitions. People compare it to a children’s story, and in some ways, it is. It’s like a kid in a candy store whose eyes are bigger than their stomach; instead of just picking one candy bar that they really like (or just really want to try), they take indiscriminate bites out of everything, ultimately just stuffing their face and getting terribly, terribly sick.
What rubs me about the record most, however, is that its most obvious asset is its ambition, but ambition alone never made anything worthwhile. Too much of Blueberry Boat sounds like the Fiery Furnaces spent a lot of time in the studio slapping down anything that came into their head. What makes this different than other records is that other records have the decency to trim down when it’s clearly appropriate. When you strip away the structural and temporal excesses of Blueberry Boat, what you’ve really got is a promising band with a lot of high hopes, but still inconsistent in lyrics, hooks, musicianship, and focus. The lavish praise showered upon this album, to me, ached to fill a vacuum—it’s the only record in recent memory that aspired to such dizzying musical density, such a blend of personal narrative and all-encompassing detail. Still, the shortcomings of it seem just too obvious to grasp desperately at it as if it were a masterpiece, despite its valiant efforts.