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Reconsidering My Choir: A Non-Defense of The Fiery Furnaces

By Brent Ables | 27 October 2015

There’s a point about a minute and a half into “Chris Michaels,” the fourth song and third epic on the first third of the second album of the only band called Fiery Furnaces, where Matthew Friedberger articulately loses his mind. He goes on record: “Plume bloom bloom blaby bloom / Cheep cheep beep bee-bee beep.” It’s possible this particular line can be implicated in some obscure entanglement with Melinda, Kevin, Jenny, Tad, Al, Gunzo, Jessica, Tony, Layover Aden, Chris Michaels, the Bombay Army, the Little Bird At Your Back Door, or any of the 489 other entities populating this song. But I like to think that just this once, M. Friedberger had a moment of spontaneity. (And then immediately transcribed it afterwards, probably with an obscure African iridescent Ebow that triples as a ballpoint pen and hair follicle stimulator for the local blunderbuss vendor. Or, whatever.) There is spontaneity in those Blueberry Boat (2004) guitar solos, too, but everything else on that record, however insane and overstuffed on the surface, is as tightly planned and structured as it is condensed. Which is to say that the Fiery Furnaces were not an experimental band at all, and always knew exactly what they were doing, even when what they were doing was, on the face of it, terrible—which was, maybe, less often than you remember.

Or maybe not. Of the small handful of bands that I, at one period in my life, have proclaimed my favorite, the Fiery Furnaces are the group I am most hesitant to recommend as actually being, y’know, a good band. With all the objectivity and scholarly remove I can muster, I admit that it is entirely possible that 75% of their output is pretty awful. I say 75% because, when they wanted to be, the Furnaces were one of the most appealing pop acts of the last decade. “Here Comes The Summer,” “I’m Waiting To Know You,” “Evergreen,” the single version of “Tropical Ice-Land,” “Borneo”— these seem like pretty likable songs for folks, I think. But I recognize that it takes a certain kind of folk to really get into something like “1917,” or “The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry,” or “Clear Signal To Cairo,” or anything Matthew Friedberger ever recorded under his own name. (Still love you, Winter Women [2006].)

Thus, a defense of the band seems kind of pointless in 2015, half a decade after their dissolution. If you haven’t listened to them at all, then I humbly suggest you march yourself to the quay, cur, and see if you fall in; if you come back dry, I’ll know you’ve made up your mind. Or maybe you already listened once a decade ago and dismissed them with a cringe. That’s cool too. Either way, I’m left with a nagging feeling, as I work back through their discography, that something in the spirit, if not the (many, many) letters of their work is sorely lacking in the music of our slightly later, considerably more serious time.

It’s hard to find a fitting word for that something, though. “Complexity” presents itself as a candidate, given the band’s propensity for 10-minute, multi-suite songs—but not a strong candidate. Matthew Friedberger is an unnaturally gifted, intimidatingly proficient composer and instrumentalist, but some of his most memorable work has all the complexity of a nursery rhyme: “Single Again,” for example, or “Borneo.” Besides, there’s no lack of complexity in popular music today (think the Brainfeeder roster, FKA Twigs, etc.) Another word would be “childishness,” which is closer: the band did seem to have both the imagination and attention span of those budding little Dexedrine addicts from your local kindergarten class. But even with the G-rated lyrics and cutesy alliteration, the band’s songs have a sinister edge and persistent dissonance that is often jarringly at odds with the sunny content. Which isn’t to say that Matthew Friedberger really wasn’t that one particular Dexedrine addict in your class who employed a virtuosic variety of fart noises to interrupt lessons, just that he then grew up to understand the true, dark secrets of the fart, and devoted a sojourn on a ship in some sea south of some small South Asian country to harnessing and expressing those farty secrets in the language of Moog.

A final possibility: the Fiery Furnaces—or at least their sole male member (heh)— are pretentious. It’s not necessarily a compliment to the band to say that the exact opposite is true. “But,” Eleanor intones, “there it is.” If what marks pretension is claiming to be something your audience knows you aren’t, then the Fiery Furnaces were the least pretentious band of all time. In all of their work from Blueberry Boat onward, the band went to merciless pains to point out exactly what they were doing at every given moment. Here’s Matthew Friedberger laying it on the line in a Widow City (2007) press release:

“As on past Fiery Furnaces’ albums, the backing tracks have a narrative aspect, excuse the expression. For instance, the long ‘bassoon’ and altered tabla part in ‘The Philadelphia Grand Jury’ might indicate the singer in the song’s waiting for the word (verdict). The loud guitar-drums-and-Chamberlin ‘thunderstorm’ part towards the end of ‘Ex-Guru’ indicates the thunderstorm brought about by the jilted ex-guru. The synthesizer filtering of the acoustic guitar in ‘Duplexes of the Dead’ indicates the odd light that filters through the dirty curtains a duplex of the dead would no doubt have. The swelling melody at the end of ‘My Egyptian Grammar’ indicates the pride that likely swells up in the breast of a blue jay referred to therein…And so forth.”

And so forth. This is what I mean when I say that the Fiery Furnaces were not experimental, or whimsical, or playful. They were steel-eyed and determined, exacting and extraordinarily focused. But their greatest fault was that they felt the need, not just in press releases but both musically and lyrically, to spell out every step of their narratives for the listener. Which can make a listener feel untrusted, or even condescended to, in some cases.

Certainly the worst offender in this regard is the band’s notorious Rehearsing My Choir (2005), which was recorded with the Friedberger’s grandmother, Olga Sarantos. The album was a fictionalized, and often fantastical, retelling of Sarantos’s life in Chicago and suburban Illinois. Metacritic has the record listed at a still-respectable 63; I guess the British press liked it. But at the time, I remember nothing but derision thrown at the album. The Cokemachineglow review, though it is lost to us (goblins), was quite harsh indeed. People didn’t like grandma’s voice; the humor was too flat and juvenile; the keyboards were even more unforgivably horrendous than usual. And anyone who got past the superficial concerns and gave the substance of the album a chance was likely to run up against that same blockheaded literalness of M. Friedberger’s songwriting: “Listen to this tune that I’m playing for you now, children. Isn’t it sad?” Or, “Do you hear it? The sound of a modest young woman’s simple contentment.” Or simply: “Listen.” This last directive is followed by a faithful synthesizer recreation of what it might sound like if eight priests sang out of tune together. You get the idea.

These criticisms are perfectly valid, and I’m not much concerned with vindicating a band that flaunts their flaws freely in the brightest colors. The fact stands that I really liked Rehearsing My Choir when it came out, and I am kind of shocked to find myself once again playing it on repeat. I’m clicking out “Candymaker’s Knife In My Handbag” on my teeth; I’m quoting “Seven Silver Curses” at inopportune moments. (Twitch, twitch.) And I don’t like it in a Mystery Science Theater kind of way; I really feel things. Is the humor funny? Lord, no. Is every song pleasant to listen to? Definitely not. Is it a chore to get all the way through? Absolutely. But that’s because it’s an album that you simply can’t not engage with while it’s on. It’s exhausting the way a rich, dense story is supposed to be exhausting: it takes you to a richly, precisely, and evocatively rendered time and place and conveys the emotions and personalities of each of the distinct characters in both form and content. Who amongst those who have spent time with this album can forget the entrance of the Archbishop, or the “fraud gypsy bitch” fortune-teller, or the Two Kevins? (“Point guard and shooting guard!”) Who doesn’t feel at least a bit of vestigial Looney Tunes giddiness when young Olga races to find an odd list of potion ingredients: a dead man’s teeth, three dozen crabapples, a garden snake in a banana bin? Who hasn’t idiot-grinned their way through the disco foibles of “The Wayward Granddaughter?” Who hasn’t, uh, cringed when an in-character Sarantos fakes rehearsal with an out-of-tune choir?

Look, I’m not going to claim that the consensus about this album was wrong, or that I see in it what others didn’t, or any such nonsense. But I do think it is a fascinating and completely, gloriously unique achievement, one I come away from each time with the distinctive melancholy of stepping out of another’s life, and it makes my own more interesting. True, it would probably belong better in some kind of Midwestern cultural museum than the indie shuffle on Spotify—but regardless, you should give it another listen, maybe, even if on Spotify. You only have to accept that although it knows exactly how ridiculous it is, it’s not a gag—and you’ll be surprised how seriously it will let you take it. Maybe you could play it for your kids someday; they might have some questions. (“Why does the lady sound like a man?” “Who is Robert Mitchum?” “Can we leave now?”) But if you, proud mom or pop, have learned to take this record on its own terms, then you only have to ask them one question in return: “Did you like the story?”