You knew it was going to happen. The Fiery Furnaces had gotten progressively better for three albums; what they didn’t consider was that their best album, EP succeeded on short, tight pop collected and well-sequenced. The previous album, Blueberry Boat stretched out the art-pop aesthetic with its songs in parts and large narratives, but the Furnaces have always been at their best when matching compelling hooks to intelligent lyrics. It’s about songwriting, not about Art. And now they’ve gone too far.
Rehearsing My Choir features Matt and Eleanor Friedberger’s grandmother, Olga Sarantos, telling stories that cover a large portion of the 20th century, and mostly revolve around a single character. Eleanor sings, and her vocals frequently partner with her grandmother’s speech, but usually more in a state of dischord than of artful blending. The concept’s great — the modernist attempt to blend various times, generations, and stories could lead to a contemporary masterpiece, but the heavily flawed execution renders the concept meaningless.
The first and possibly most damaging problem lies in the music, which lacks the focus, coherence, and development to be rewarding beyond a novelty listen. At its best, the music sounds like a Houston slooooowed down version of EP. Sarantos especially suffers, perhaps simply because she’s juxtaposed with the people I really want to hear, or maybe because she’s given the spoken-word parts, or maybe just because she’s not a natural storyteller (especially if the stories are written by someone else and designed to be told among ineffective music).
The album contains moments of good music. Opener “The Garfield El” suggests that something new and intriguing is about to come. “Seven Silver Curses” and “Slavin’ Away” each save their moments for one of the mid-song changes. The latter especially uses the shift effectively, using a distorted sound to snap you back to attention, and then dropping to a quiet acoustic part that matches Eleanor’s vocals: “Slavin’ away/ All for you my love/ And I’ve nothing to show for it”. The music than transition into a triumphant keyboard part.
The other major problem is that none of the speakers involved are truly successful storytellers. If we’re able to reduce the music to background accompaniment, we need an album that can stand on its stories, and regardless of the content of their tales, the tellers aren’t engaging. These stories don’t warrant second listens; they’re strange, neither nuanced nor complex. This happens and then that happens, and we learn all about it with bad music distracting us.
The album’s title track bottoms out the album, by both demonstrating and describing a choir rehearsal (which breaks like six rules of first-year creative writing classes). At one point we hear poor singing and Sarantos says, “That’s not good… that sounds horrible.” When the archbishop comes, he has its own dark side theme, but it doesn’t matter — we’ve already suffered more than any church music/politics moment can dish out. I’ve been there — at the end of a real rehearsal you can get a milkshake if you want; at the end of this song, we just get some dead guy and “Does It Remind You of When?” and more demonstrative acts. At least it’s almost over (just got to get through some musical representations of traffic and construction first), but I’m glad the dead guy is at least finished.
Some of my favorite albums of the year (Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy and Princess Superstar’s My Machine) are ambitious concept albums. Given the Fiery Furnaces proven skill at the longform song, I popped this album in with the hope that Rehearsing My Choir would turn out to be another of 2005’s stellar discs. Instead, it turned into my biggest disappointment, and the band will likely now have the odd achievement of showing up on both my top 10 (for EP) and my bottom 10 lists for the year. The good news is that the next album’s already finished, so at least we won’t have long to wait for a disc to help put this one behind us.