Music

Matthew Friedberger: Matricidal Sons of Bitches

What remains is a melodically pretty but unadventurous, all-instrumental slog I would hardly attribute to Friedberger, were his name not associated with it.


Matthew Friedberger

Matricidal Sons of Bitches

Label: Thrill Jockey
US Release Date: 2012-10-30
UK Release Date: 2012-10-29
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The opening strains of Matthew Friedberger’s latest solo album are profoundly and cruelly misleading. But with a title like Matricidal Sons of Bitches and a 45-song track list of diminishing returns, one wonders whether the arousal of rancor is the whole point of this particular exercise. There was a time (the half decade from 2004-2009, to be exact) when Matthew Friedberger could do no wrong, musically speaking. As the Fiery Furnaces, he and his sister Eleanor produced album after album of masterful pop/rock music. Two of the albums they created (Blueberry Boat in 2004 and Rehearsing My Choir in 2005) were and continue to be stunning examples of bold, groundbreaking musical storytelling, light years beyond anything released by their blog-rock contemporaries at the time or in the years that followed. That Mr. Friedberger has since disappeared into a sort of prolific but aloof musical wilderness is perhaps the inevitable (and arguably earned) willfulness that follows such achievements.

But for the briefest of moments, “Ladies-in-Waiting – Waiting Forever I. The Neighbors” promises to pick up where Rehearsing My Choir left off. Every indication is there: The minimalist and mournful piano pounding, the spoken word narration provided by a female voice, synthesizers and sound effects. Friedberger seems to be back in his wheelhouse after last year’s exhaustive (and exhausting) eight-LP Solos experiment. Yet aside from the variation and revival of a couple of engaging melodies that anchor the eleven tracks composing the “Ladies-in-Waiting – Waiting Forever” suite, only that first number and its near-bookend “Ladies-in-Waiting – Waiting Forever X. ‘I'm Sure It's… For the Best’” have any staying power.

What remains is a melodically pretty but unadventurous, all-instrumental slog I would hardly attribute to Friedberger, were his name not associated with it. For a glimpse of what could have been and a measure of how far beneath his high standard this falls, consider that his first solo release --2006’s double album Winter Women and Holy Ghost Language School -- represented a successful marriage of pop hooks with complex spoken and sung narratives that managed to entertain on emotional and intellectual levels. On the Thrill Jockey web page for the album, Friedberger says “Matricidal Sons of Bitches is not the soundtrack to not a film. But what if it wasn't?” Such self-negating rhetoric, once used to playful effect on “Nevers” from Bitter Tea (2006), now reads as a defensive pose -- a frustrated and frustrating disavowal of Friedberger’s own creation. It’s a shame Matricidal Sons of Bitches doesn’t have a visual counterpart to compensate for the lack of words and ideas. As is, there’s no there, there.

None of this is to say that an album cannot stand on the merits of its music. Plenty of artists release albums full (or mostly full) of non-vocal music that has some crossover appeal to the audience that Friedberger and Thrill Jockey are targeting with this release. Take, for example Alog’s Unemployed, which was released by Rune Grammofon internationally late last year and in the United States in January. Unemployed is a mostly instrumental collage of such breadth and variety that a year’s worth of listens haven’t dampened its innovative qualities.

Though forgoing his usual way with words isn’t Friedberger’s biggest folly. The most regrettable aspect of Matricidal Sons of Bitches is the recognition that Friedberger no longer sounds like an innovator. While the piano and keyboard work are but shadows of their former glory, at least they are extensions of his recognizable musical brand – the aural equivalent of comfort food. On the other hand, his overuse of the Mellotron choir (particularly in the “Brand-New Mothers – Trying it Out” suite) sounds indebted to its more creative and selective execution elsewhere (such as its iconic use on Radiohead’s OK Computer). Without a doubt, the album’s most potent source of undoing is its reliance on several of the same Optigan samples/discs that were featured on Optiganally Yours’ discography more than a decade ago. That project (masterminded by Pea Hix and the inimitable Rob Crow) never enjoyed Friedberger’s level of exposure, but its deployment of the Optigan is unquestionably the instrument’s definitive “indie rock” usage. Anyone trying to best that duo’s efforts has to do a considerable amount more than Friedberger has done here, and the fact that he works with so many of the exact sounds they used only highlights how elementary his treatment is by comparison.

Matthew Friedberger isn’t one to shy away from rivalry. Be it with Optiganally Yours, Radiohead, or Beck (the latter of who he’s actually, actively beefed with), rock and roll rivalry could be the mother of invention for Friedberger as it has been for many mad musical geniuses past. Take Beck, for instance, who saw Friedberger’s challenge and used the opportunity to write and perform the world’s most convincing Fiery Furnaces soundalike. For what it’s worth, Beck also beat Friedberger to the market with the “silent album” concept that the Fiery Furnaces have been promising for years, so Mr. Hansen is working towards a TKO.

I like Matthew Friedberger. I believe in Matthew Friedberger. I’m confused by the choice to release Matricidal Sons of Bitches outside of his Solos series, because it is so unrepresentative of the standard he set on every other album that bears his name or the name of his band. But hope is not lost. There’s a confession of sorts, buried at the very end of his latest free-association monologue, written in support of The Diabolical Principle (2012), his Solos compilation. Friedberger writes, “You try and fail but succeed, not at last, but anyway. I mean, you don’t have to try to make music that way. It’s like that anyway. You—I mean you!—hear it one way, and then another. Whether you like it or not. So here it is again and different. Redundancy is not a sin, and like what it isn't maybe it isn't. But it can be confusing.”

Indeed.

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