Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School
(859 Recordings; 2006)
By Christopher Alexander | 21 October 2007
Winter Woman: 70%; Holy Ghost Language School; 44%
I realize this is an oft-repeated bromide, but the long run-times of albums created in the age of CDs irk me. It could be a fault of this reviewer – short attention span, general curmudgeonly-ness, whatever — but anything over an hour of a single album makes me twitchy. The LP format is preferable because single sides only take, at most, twenty-odd minutes. The significant pause in the action helps the audience catch their breath, or decide if they want to continue on the path. It’s active, it’s friendly. Sixty minutes of the same artist droning on the same themes feels onerous, even for a professional.
Double-albums, on CD, are in some ways preferable because the audience is not expected to take them in a single setting. Listen to one now, get around to the second later on, like chapters of a book. Double CDs can reinforce the duality that was inherent in the bifurcation of vinyl sides — different moods, themes, etc. But double albums have a tendency to meander and lose focus, to say nothing of the universal truism that behind every double album is a great single album. Double albums are notorious for losing the plot, or not having a plot, or by relying so heavily on a plot it disguises that they in fact have nothing else. Sheer subtraction by addition — few can make forty-five minutes of solid music, but eighty, ninety, oh my god TWO HOURS of music? When you stretch yourself thin, you get thin material. A surfeit of thin material, actually, and it makes reviewing records feel like work, like my pen is an archaeologist’s dirt-pan, sifting for the relevance in a heap of dust and dirt.
So along comes Matthew Friedberger, and if there’s another artist better suited to stumble — no, make that run, lunging headfirst into those pratfalls of overstuffed records with no coherent vision, then I don’t know them. Blueberry Boat and Bitter Tea are fun records, ear-candy, but I agree with the haters that there can be too much of a good thing. Even I have to catch my breath somewhere around “Spaniolated” during the former. So this thing — Mr. Friedberger’s first solo record, a double album halved by two separate ideas — landed on my desk (er, okay, desktop) and I refused to acknowledge its existence. It felt like taking on Mason & Dixon after reading Gravity’s Rainbow and V in the same month. (This is a poor comparison, because even Pynchon wrote The Crying of Lot 49. And no, The Fiery Furnaces’ EP doesn’t count.)
Should we conflate the two, the band and the mere tyrant present in Winter Women/Holy Language Ghost School? If press releases are to be believed, they exist only against the backdrop of “a logjam” of Fiery Furnaces records, so it’s not out of line to suggest that these are the FF records that could’ve been. Eleanor’s absence could mean nothing, or it could signify 1) that there were contract problems; 2) Matthew wanted his already total creative vision unencumbered by his singer; or 3) she put her foot down and told her she wasn’t along for this ride. Is this too sensational? I’ve always suspected that along with her voice, Eleanor’s role is in the unenviable position of telling Matthew “no.” You could argue that she should do it more often. I’d agree, so you understand my trepidation at his first double solo album: conceptual, long, done by himself, put out by his own label. Surely, I thought as I sat at my computer, there were less threatening things which warranted my attention. I turned instead to a mounting avalanche of Sallie Mae letters.
My fears aren’t entirely unfounded, it turns out: they sound enough like The Fiery Furnaces that one is hard pressed to avoid placing them in that band’s ongoing narrative. I mean this both in terms of the easy signifiers and the arc of an artist’s progress. Both records evince the same fascination with weird-sounding analog instruments, British songwriting, long proper nouns, sudden thematic shifts, and the occasional whoosh sound drowning everything out. But — on Winter Women, at least — there’s growth here, as well. His work is more percussive, the choices of instrumentation less grating, and things seem to follow a more logical path than the last two FF albums. There are even fewer “what the fuck?” moments.
A big surprise, though, is that, for all his unchecked excess, the Matthew Friebderger on these records doesn’t sound the least bit egotistical. Obviously, this can’t be true, but his singing on this record is so understated and shy — and then mixed so low — that what can’t help but wonder what he’s hiding. I don’t mean that to sound sinister, but he tacks so many keyboards and weird sounds that it now strikes me as diversionary. The melodies are strong, the lyrics don’t appear to be autobiographical, so what’s going on here? True, he doesn’t have a strong voice, but it’s perfectly adequate; and anyway, the Fiery Furnaces audience probably wouldn’t care, or notice. But this is heretofore unknown (unthinkable?) evidence of insecurity.
It’s unfortunate, because it’s the primary one of three things keeping Winter Women from being among the year’s best records. It’s the kind of pop record we’ve known he’s had in him since “Evergreen,” and much of the songwriting here recalls that single’s mid-tempo Beatle-esque songcraft. He’s content to just let his songs be songs — the infamous jarring passages mid-bridge are still there, such as in the single “Up the River,” but there are less of them, and they seem less like they’re there for their own sake. Friedberger does a lot of work here with the mellotron, a precursor to synthesizer that simulated string and woodwind instruments. Recall the intro to “Strawberry Fields Forever,” then check how Matthew uses it to bolster the main melody of “The Pennsylvania Rock Oil Co. Resignation Letter.” Drums (an instrument that’s always strangely lacking on Fiery Furnaces records, and performed here by Tortoise’s John McEntire) are played throughout the record, and he treats them to great effect on the herk-a-jerk “PS 213 Mini School,” matching live drums with sequenced and almost arrhythmic drum machines. While he hasn’t abandoned the over-processed keyboards entirely, this suggests a deeper understanding and attention to his esthetic choices.
This doesn’t mean, however, that Friedberger has yet solved his problem with production — or, to be fair, perhaps it’s just the mixing board. He buries some of his best melodies, like “Pennsylvania Rock,” “Ruth Versus Richard,” and “Quick as Cupid” under mountains of instruments. These melodies deserve to be sunbursts, but they never come out of the clouds. Whether its my theory on insecurity or his simple inability to prune his material is uncertain, but it’s another strike against this record.
The final problem is that it’s packaged with his other solo album, Holy Ghost Language School, similar in tone and content to Rehearsing My Choir. I’ve given it a higher rating for the sole reason that he doesn’t drag his grandmother into it, and in that respect is a less unseemly listening experience. One could argue that it’s actually worse, however; Friedberger is so lost in the ether of his instruments that the words are hard to make out, a key ingredient to enjoying a record dependent on its narration, however fractured and disjointed. And there’s nothing even remotely like “Slavin’ Away,” or “The Garfield El,” or “Seven Silver Fucking Curses.” As for the libretto, well, you tell me: “this guy from Chicago goes and starts a business school for English in Japan that operates by xenolalia” — speaking in tongues — “to do the business transactions. So they get the Holy Ghost and start speaking in tongues to negotiate.” Reads like the jacket to an inferior Haruki Murakami novel, and I’m unsure what happens, where, and to whom. If it’s a less offensive listen, it’s profoundly unsatisfying as well.
Friedberger acquits himself, somewhat, of the problems inherent in the double album. The two records have distinct personalities, are more or less coherent, and even the weird record is a digestible 46 minutes in length. This is as fully realized an example of the Friedberger vision that exists, which is why it’s so frustrating that Winter Women never really gets off the ground, or that Holy Ghost wallows in its creator’s own pique. Disasters or triumphs, despised or celebrated, Matthew Freidberger is responsible for some this decade’s most totemic albums: it seems unfitting that his solo albums, which at this point could be important steps in the Fiery Furnaces story, appear doomed to the also-ran column of indie-pop history.