If you’re even reading this, chances are good that you’ve heard of, and developed an opinion on, The Fiery Furnaces. The two sides of the argument regarding the band would seem to be that the Furnaces, comprised of brother-sister duo Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, are either skewed pop geniuses or A.D.D.-addled annoyances, with very little room for the in-between. Given this pervasive dichotomy of opinion, one might be so bold as to determine that Matthew’s first step into solo work comes largely as the result of reading his own reviews—why else do us the favor of turning in a two-disc set, one disc of which he calls the “pop” disc, and the other of which the “experimental”?
The two discs don’t even bother to try to be conceptually tied together, as the two discs have their own separate names, Winter Women and Holy Ghost Language School, sort of like that OutKast album except with one guy doing both discs. Winter Women is the “pop” album, Holy Ghost Language School is the experimental album, and the thinking goes that no matter which side of the Great Fiery Furnaces Divide you fall on, you’re bound to be able to appreciate one of the two.
As is so often the case with these sorts of intentions, the execution finds itself in a rather different place.
Most noticeably, Winter Women is often at least as experimental and off-putting as Holy Ghost Language School. Sure, Winter Women features a pile of two-or-three minute vignettes that show off Friedberger’s expertise at putting together Beatles songs that carry the squelch of the Flaming lips, but when you place those on the same disc as something as utterly abrasive as the six-minute “Motorman”, you have no right calling that CD “a bunch of pop songs”, unless you think, say, Xiu Xiu is a pop band. Similarly, Holy Ghost Language School has at least a few tracks that would have fit in just fine with the supposed aesthetic of Winter Women—opener “Seventh Loop Highway” might deal in major sevenths and jazz chords a little too much to be called ‘pop’, but at its heart, it’s just a rock song with a steady beat and a creepy piano coda. “Do You Like Blondes?” is Queens of the Stone Age with more talking, and while “First Day of School” does go in a bunch of different directions, it only does it in the relatively harmless way that Beck does when he’s stretching his songs past the point of having anything meaningful to say.
So really, the two “sides” of Friedberger’s personality aren’t, apparently, all that different from each other, even when he’s trying to contain or exploit his oddest tendencies. Other than the fact that Holy Ghost Language School has something approaching a narrative flow (featuring a story that has something to do with a guy starting a school that teaches people to communicate via the Holy Ghost for the sake of benefitting international commerce), the double album could, at its base, simply be one man’s increasingly maddening journey into the confines of his own head.
Take away all of this, however, and the one thing that Winter Women / Holy Ghost Language School really has going for it is a serious display of confidence out of the elder Friedberger. His singing voice, particularly on the more poppy Winter Women tracks like “The Pennsylvania Rock Oil Co. Resignation Letter” and “Don’t You Remember?” is on-key and fairly George Harrison-esque in its purity, and when he’s speaking, he’s obviously trying to make a point, even if you can’t always figure out what it is. His instrumental arrangements, for their part, are typically fearless, and he maintains the knack that he’s shown through his entire career for managing to put together instruments and electronics that don’t sound for a second like they could logically meld, but somehow work well together.
Of course, such confidence breeds folly just as often, as Friedberger spouts off plenty of incidental nonsense whose sole purpose would seem to be off-kilter, impressionist imagery. There’s an ornithopter here, a manatee, and lots of speaking in tongues, which in Friedberger’s world amounts to backward masking. As charming as Friedberger can be (as on the tale of employee empowerment “Her Chinese Typewriter”), he’s at least as often a little too precocious for his own good, and it makes the overall listening experience simultaneously cloying and fascinating.
As a result, there’s very little in the way of opinion to offer when it comes to Friedberger’s double-opus. It sounds like the Fiery Furnaces minus the vocals of Eleanor Friedberger, who had absolutely nothing at all to do with either disc. It’s easy to wonder whether the Friedbergers would be more consistent with their quality if they didn’t release so much material (these being the sixth and seventh full-length CDs of Fiery Furnaces-related work since their 2003 debut Gallowsbird’s Bark), but given that every note on every album thus far sounds so meticulously placed, I don’t know that more time in between releases would result in all that marked of an improvement. Oversaturation of a limited market, on the other hand… I think the Friedbergers may be getting dangerously close. On its own, however, Winter Women / Holy Ghost Language School will do just fine as a Furnaces fix (on the off-chance you’re already aching for such after four months of Bitter Tea), with the added bonus of a few mix-tape tunes worthy of convincing the naysayers that there are great pop songs to be found in the Furnaces’ canon.
In other words… y’know, it’s pretty good, even if it is better as a subject of analysis than as anything that will evoke any sort of emotion. Besides, you already knew when you saw the artist name whether you’d enjoy it or not.