The Fiery Furnaces’ ‘Blueberry Boat’ Doesn’t Capsize

Just when you think the Fiery Furnaces Blueberry Boat might capsize and sink into the same old self-indulgence, the ship arights itself.

The Fiery Furnaces
Blueberry Boat
Rough Trade
13 July 2004

Somehow, the Fiery Furnaces have avoided the imbroglio facing other like-minded duos – the daunting comparison to the charisma and musical muscle of a certain candy-striped couple hailing out of Detroit Rock City. Part of this is because the duo have carved out their own niche in the overcrowded world of rock ‘n’ roll tandems.

Their debut album Gallowsbird’s Bark featured whimsical compositions by both members of the brother-sister team, Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger, that bore more than a passing resemblance to children’s nursery rhymes. While Gallowsbird’s Bark was an impressive and entertaining first effort, standing out from much of the recycled indie fare hitting the market, it provided no clues as to what would confront us with their second album. It is almost unfathomable to understand how the Fiery Furnaces jumped from the pleasant pop of their first full-length to the unwieldy, over-packed but inspired 13 tracks comprising the whole of Blueberry Boat.

One clue that the Freidberger’s offer is their undying appreciation for mini-operas like the Who’s “A Quick One” and “Rael”. The homage to the Who surfaces time and time again throughout Blueberry Boat with bombastic Moon-esque drumming (“Mason City”), the measured use of synthesizers and keyboards to accentuate a lyrical tale (“Quay Cur” and “Mason City”), and the blitzkrieg of songwriting styles, melodies and hooks that attack the senses throughout the listening experience (“Bird Brain”). While some of the songs are traditional in length, many are over seven minutes, which can almost induce nausea when digesting a flurry of ideas.

This reaction is most evident in Blueberry Boat‘s three opening tracks. “Quay Cur” tops the ten-minute mark and brutalizes the listener with a maelstrom of rhyming couplets, musical departures, and a series of eye-blink-speed instrumental shifts. The fury and verve of this track are more akin to hardcore music than pop, as it never allows breathing room in its aural attack.

Both “Straight Street” and the opening minutes of the title track begin to chart a similar course, brimming with ideas and melodies, yet never becoming a fluid or consistent whole. The second third of the opus “Blueberry Boat” finds the duo finally finding their course. As a cacophony of Sgt. Pepper’s proportions fade into a delicate piano line, and Eleanor’s sing-song rhyming vocal lines suddenly right the ship. From this point on, Blueberry Boat begins using the charms of Gallowsbird’s Bark and synthesizes the duo’s old winning moves with the new, more expansive, and experimental style they hoped to achieve with Blueberry Boat.

By this point, instead of feeling forced, the songs feel alive, embodied in the energy of worthy performances merging with sharp and dynamic songwriting. The album’s centerpiece, “I Lost My Dog”, finds the duo reaching for the stratosphere. Eleanor takes the listener on a vivid race through an imaginary town to find her abused dog. Rather than relying on the power of the Who’s aforementioned works, “Dog” uses instrumentation and invention that owes its inspiration to the Beatles’ White Album, combining dirty electric and clean acoustic guitar leads, music box digitized drums, and soaring keyboards.

Suddenly, the Fiery Furnaces are transformed, no longer a copycat brother/sister garage duo, but rather a twosome joined on a magical mystery tour searching within their own songs for some elusive originality or joy. After finding their dog, they take us on a McCartney-style stroll through town (“Mason City”), merge folk writing with electro-pop recalling a more ramshackle Everything But the Girl (“Inspector Blancheflower”), take a page out of the Flaming Lips celestial playbook (“Spaniolated”), and dabble in pre-Soviet organ grinder folk (“1917”). This chaotic collection of themes and musical styles may sound daunting, and upon first listen, it can be, but the voyage comes together in a way that is both exciting and pleasurable by the time you stumble down the gangplank of the Blueberry Boat and try to lose your sea legs.

Although the early part of Blueberry Boat is disjointed and difficult to absorb, the album is still a triumph. While certain tracks don’t work as well as they should, the effort is always present, and the latter half of the album makes up for the early misses. In a music-buying economy that routinely rewards mediocrity and mimics its artists, it is refreshing to find a group sincerely attempting to strive for something greater than the norm. Blueberry Boat is the sound of the Fiery Furnaces looking in the mirror at themselves and seeing someone else entirely, bringing back a sorely missed spirit of creativity and daring to indie rock.