The Fiery Furnaces
Rehearsing My Choir
he Fiery Furnaces are too clever for their own good. Having dropped one of the most divisive, compelling, and strong-willed indie albums of 2004 (the decade?) in Blueberry Boat, they decided to release this, a deliberately obtuse radio play about lost love, cooking school, donut filling as medical stitching, haberdasheries, and death costarring their pitch-poor leather-voiced grandma, Olga Sarantos, who yowls with gusto over the whole thing. I’m a little too suspicious—or maybe too trusting of myself—to let what seems to be such a deliberate curveball/stunt fizzle expectations in the wake of Blueberry Boat, given that the band’s “real” follow-up, Bitter Tea, is already due to come out in January. No, it seems like the Freidberger siblings are just floating a fattened target grossly before our eager eyes. Incidentally, that’s fine. Rehearsing My Choir is a little like your spouse asking to renew their vows after they’ve spent a chunk of your savings on foul land speculations and just got a tattoo of the Tasmanian devil on their ever-growing gut—if love is real, you’ll stay no matter what. Admittedly, though it’s clunky and overwrought, the real problem isn’t that the story is tedious or that Olga’s voice is awful—it’s actually weirdly thrilling—it’s that the album simply doesn’t feel as well executed as the premise promises.
Blueberry Boat often felt like it was trying to shoot the moon: when it was good it was thrilling, when it was bad it was just awful. Rehearsing My Choir is only the shell of the band’s shroomy synaesthetic ambitions. And here’s their cleverness coming back to bite them in the ass: when Sarantos triumphantly commands “faster, hammers!” over a concert of tack pianos on the album-opening “The Garfield El,” she’s talking about the hammers of the piano; later, she moves to describe the correspondence between her and her husband, but it’s played out as a mournful piano falling on the deaf ears of a silly, ricocheting synthesizer line. The musical ideas try to hide behind the story, which in turn tries to hide behind the music. Take the closest loved one to you and try to have them hide behind you while you hide behind them and you’ll see what I mean: you both end up looking a little confused and foolish, but it does have a tint of the ol’ hocus pocus to it.
What’s strange about Rehearsing My Choir, besides the already-iterated and obvious, is its persistence. It’s a story, and while the narrative doesn’t always make good on its gravity—by the end, Olga is playing piano at her ex-husband’s funeral with his new wife weeping in the pew—fragments of it wallop. The first segment of “The Garfield El,” for example, ranks among the most sweepingly romantic things the band has done. The aforementioned “Faster, hammers!” continually circles the drain of “churn and turn into my late train to my lost love;” it’s actually quite beautiful, “my lost love” becomes a fixation the entire lyric keeps curling to, “we’re almost there” the hope to go on, it’s just too bad that by the middle of the album the sentiment feels utterly weighed down.
Rehearsing My Choir isn’t going to become a lost holy grail, and it’s probably not going to be nearly as big of a deal as Blueberry Boat; it’s just hard to imagine anybody trying to get behind it forcefully enough. Rehearsing My Choir is a product of indulgence and we all knew it to begin with, so let’s just get on with the proverbial “it.” Ultimately, the album is not altogether unlike Olga’s description of the choir of eight priests that presides over her wedding in the story: “It looked impressive, but it didn’t sound very good,” and while it’s difficult as all hell to get through, it has its own flawed rewards, you’ve just got to balance on the band’s rickety bridge to find them.