Singer Eleanor Friedberger looked like a spooked doll. Her big brown eyes locked
onto the horizon, while her thick dark-brown bangs lay flat and long
against her forehead, reaching just past her eyebrows and grabbing
for the lashes. Her long fingers cupped the microphone as she sang songs
from the Fiery Furnaces' stunning debut, 2003's Gallowsbird's Bark.
Friedberger's brother, guitarist/keyboardist Matthew, spit out words in the background, as if he were narrating the story, delivering spiraling guitar riffs and off-kilter keyboard sounds. I was sucked right into their curious set that rainy night last year; it was the first time I experienced the Fiery Furnaces' unusual but powerful approach.
Their quirky arrangements often feel like the unintended consequence of child's play, as if they were innocently and nonsensically experimenting with sounds. It's within the seemingly simple surface of their music that the Fiery Furnaces' creative talent lies. Their inventive, experimental-leaning music dances through history, passing from blues to rock 'n' roll to pop to experimental to something uniquely theirs.
On the surface, it's all raw and minimal, but dig deeper into their colorful, complex collage of sounds and you'll see it took much risk-taking (and talent) to piece their idiosyncratic songs together. And with their second album, Blueberry Boat, the Fiery Furnaces have taken a giant leap forward, exploring new territory rather than simply making another album just like their first.
The barroom piano-driven "I Lost My Dog" unleashes primitive drumming, '60s-style organ, acoustic guitar strums, urgent speak-singing and words that are doubtlessly symbolic. "I kicked my dog/ I was mean to him before/ I guess that's why/ He walked out my door/ I really wish/ I could see him some more."
The epic, eight-plus-minute-long "Mason City" traverses an array of sonic territories sluggish marching beats and minimal piano, breezy handclaps and beautifully infectious melodies, screaming guitar solos and spastic background effects. "Straight Street" features Delta blues guitar and rollicking speak-singing, balancing between emotional builds and breakdowns.
The warped, bass-heavy "Paw Paw Tree" juxtaposes light, tinkering electronics
against a Velvet Underground drugged-out feel, as is true with many of their
songs. Backed by burning Atari electronics and slithering along with barely a
melody, "Inspector Blancheflower" speaks more than it sings, atop piano that
crashes in with monumental importance alongside on-again, off-again whining sound
The disorienting, nagging keyboards behind "1917" might rub you the wrong way,
but if you're into twisted dissonance, you'll dig another speak-sung song from
Matthew, who tends to take lead on the least melodic tracks, while Eleanor's
strong, sweet vocals take over where there's many a hook to grab onto.
Like true experimentalists, the Fiery Furnaces also use creative diversity within their lyricism to match the spectrum of head-scratching sounds backing them up. Their words feel like an obscure, silly adventure. The 13 tracks on Blueberry Boat speak of everything from penguins, dressing gowns and silver charms to Dairy Queens, Taiwan streams and quarantines; from sunfish, birds and oceans to ships, scotch and, of course, blueberries and boats.
The duo have followed Gallowsbird's Bark with a sophomore effort that with
its left-wing turn to the weird far surpasses the expectations built by
that drizzly Portland night where music and love happily met once again.