The Fiery Furnaces

Blueberry Boat

(Rough Trade; 2004)

By Sean Ford | 14 November 2007

With last year's Gallowsbird Bark, the Fieries announced themselves as a band worth paying attention to. I wasn't quite sold on their garage rock blues folk mish-mash right away; it took a while before I eventually came around to their unique approach and gave into the Friedberger sibling's quirky lyrics and off-beat stylings. The album, even with enough personality, musical quirks and great lyrics to keep me coming back, still didn't prepare me for this. The leap taken on Blueberry Boat is obscene and nearly inexplicable; in fact, that this album hits less than a year after Gallowsbird Bark is mindboggling.

Lyrically, they've crafted the most complete concept stories of recent memory; with these epics, they spin range from credit card fraud to pirates to joining the army to a dog finding religious enlightenment. But musically? That's where it gets tough. The Furnaces touch on everything from the Beatles to Pink Floyd, Dylan, early Americana folk and blues, the Who (faintly), Captain Beefheart, the inventiveness of the Velvets, PJ Harvey, Patti Smith, Queen, Radiohead, the ADD of Guided By Voices, the heavy trip hop production of the Bristol Massive, Bjork, Royal Trux, etc. etc. Throw all of the above mentioned bands into a blender, add some Jack Daniels and puree
the end result is something wholly original and enjoyable, an extremely rare combination. Suffice to say the Friedbergers have made a cogent statement that leaves most other contemporary acts in the dust.

But why is this such a great record? Start with song structure; there's the mass of Who "rock opera" comparisons that Matthew himself had started, but they're still pretty far from the mark. The short-story lyrical structure is far more similar to Bob Dylan's compositions on Blood on the Tracks and Highway 61 Revisited, albeit sung by two people and in ever-shifting perspectives and characters. But they're far more than post-modern Dylan, because in addition to the shifting lyrical sensibilities within songs, the songs themselves morph and wind. Rather than a rock opera it seems more like what Guided By Voices was doing in their heyday (Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes) by stringing together several songs to make one longer, complete composition.

The Fieries certainly did this a few times on Gallowsbird, but the decision here to make longer compositions that revisit riffs and sonic elements makes for an incredibly dense and bewildering listen. But what makes this album most revelant to these ears is the seeming invention of a new kind of Americana that isn't tied to tired song structures and the standard Dylan immitations we've seen before. They've updated the political Americana rock that he made so revelant in the '60s without sounding a bit like him; they've integrated any interesting sound implements from the last forty years of music (electronica, classic rock, trip hop, indie rock) in such a cohesive way, it's simply staggering.

It opens with a sick trip beat that's joined by a slow piano melody and everything just grows more complicated from there. Soon, Eleanor comes in with a restrained melody, singing "I had a jacket/ A little silver charm/ Given to me so to keep me out of harm" that, on it's own, would make for a great little song. Fortunately, the Fieries aren't really into making "little songs;" the track stretches out for ten minutes and features each Matthew and Eleanor singing in different styles and contains at least six parts and probably twice as many riffs on either piano or guitar or electronic devices of unknown origin.

"Blueberry Boat" is another highlight. It starts with a sick keyboard riff that the Unicorns are probably extremely pissed off they didn't think up first. Fortunately for the Unis, they could probably still steal it because it lasts all of twenty seconds before promptly flitting away to make room for something completely different. Though different variations of it come back from time to time, it's overshadowed by a tale of
yup, you guessed itblueberry pirates. "Paw Paw Tree" is one of the shorter tracks, but no less rewarding than the more long-winded pieces that surround it. "'My Dog Was Lost But Now He's Found," on the other hand, is a tale of a dog who runs away and finds 'the light', I wonder if it's a send up of the VU's "I''m Beginning to See the Light' in addition to the obvious reference to "Amazing Grace."

As long as we're talking about Blueberry Boat's highlights, we may as well touch on "Chief Inspector Blancheflower," which starts with a dance beat and winding droning keyboard line worthy of, well frankly, more worthy than anything the recent "dance-punks" could think up. Matt takes the lead singing about being too distracted and hyperacitve to choose a career and, at the end of his tale, Eleanor joins in channeling Gloria Gaynor complimented by a simply joyous melody and piano riff that trounces most all electro-pop of the '00s so far. Towards the end of the song there's even call and response interplay that recalls the halycon days of Frank Black and Kim Deal.

After "Blancheflower," the album, while maintaining its consistency, gets more explorartory with the electronic flourishes of the record's first half. "Spaniolated," for instance, incorporates wavering synths into a great short song about a disgruntled TCBY employee; meanwhile, the two following tracks, "'1917" and the slow carnival swirl of "Birdie Brain," follow in much the same vein, though with the same schizophrenic sense of structure that had marked the record from the beginning. "Wolf Notes," the album closer, features another winding proggy keyboard riff and is probably as close to an origin story for the Fiery Furnaces as we're going to get.

The term "concept album," much like the term "epic," gets thrown around a wee bit liberally these days, but this album, with as little hyperbole attached as possible, is both. It's a psychotic, laid-back exploration and critique of modern American culture that hasn't been pulled off as originally or as enjoyably for years. The Friedbergers are crafting a new Americana that is rooted in folk, blues and electronica, along with every other branch of rock music they can conceivably get their hands on. The America the Fiery Furnaces write about is one filled with brand names, multiple remote controls and cheap cars; the heroes and heroines of their many song-stories are disgruntled and frustrated people exploring a ridiculous glorious carnival wasteland. It's one well worth visiting.

In the end, the Fiery Furnaces are not the "Next Big Thing;" they autonomously live, exist and create in their own universe, and even with a product so unique and appealing as Blueberry Boat, it's obvious that many just won't care for all that it has to offer because of its decidedly difficult approach. But for those that will love this album, Blueberry Boat is an incredible accomplishment and one of the best records 2004 has
offered usor probably will, for that matter. No doubt it will also find itself the victim of many admiring imitators, to which the final lines of the title track can best serve as a warning: "Go ahead, you could cut my throat/ But you ain't never getting the cargo of my blueberry boat/ It's sad and it's cold at the bottom of the sea/ But at least I got my blueberries with me." Sorry, Fiery Furnacesit's lonely at the top. But at least you have this masterpiece to listen to while you're there, and so do we.