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The Fiery Furnaces - Blueberry Boat

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Artist: The Fiery Furnaces

Album: Blueberry Boat

Label: Rough Trade / World's Fair

Review date: Aug. 26, 2004

“Quay Cur,” the opening track on Blueberry Boat, is 10 and a half minutes long and features about three dozen sections that have very little to do with one another. “Self-indulgent” is a term that’s applied to music way too often, usually by people who don’t want to grapple with new sounds and approaches. Still, “Quay Cur” and the rest of Blueberry Boat are self-indulgent.

It’s an ambitious album, but only in the sense that most of the songs are outrageously long and feature approximately eighteen gratuitous time signatures each. The Fiery Furnaces don’t really offer new sounds, and for the most part, their style is straightforward psychedelic pop, with melodies and chord progressions that could have been written at any point in the last three decades. So all the twists and turns are for their own sake, and not in the service of any approach that might necessitate unusual structures.

That in itself isn’t necessarily a problem – there’s no reason even straightforward pop bands should have to keep their songs under four minutes if they don’t want to. The real problem is that most of these tracks are pop songs without hooks or personality which, along with their length, makes them intolerable. Despite having so many sections, a good two-thirds of the songs putter along at about the same dynamic level throughout, which makes it tough for the Fiery Furnaces to achieve much contrast between verses and choruses.

The vocal parts, meanwhile, are often awkwardly matched to their musical accompaniment – the vocals come in streams of syllables that match hip hop’s verbosity but not its gracefulness. And vocal and instrumental phrases often don’t end together: for no obvious reason, the vocal lines often end at natural cadence points, then wait for a few beats for the instrumental parts to finish before moving on. The band seems to match the instrumental and vocal parts better in the last half of the album (which was recorded in a different session than the first), but the songs are still dynamically flat.

Worse, neither member of the Fiery Furnaces (brother Matthew and sister Eleanor Friedberger) is a convincing singer: both seem to have severely limited vocal ranges, and neither seems to be trying particularly hard. The backing tracks don’t make up for that, either. The most prominent instrument on the album is a keyboard set on a terrible piano preset (or is it a very, very dryly recorded piano?), and most of the instrumental parts were performed with such inflection-free precision as to almost seem robotic, making the Fiery Furnaces sometimes sound a little like the soundtrack to an early Nintendo game. Blueberry Boat has elicited a ton of comparisons to the Who, but on only one track, “Chris Michaels,” does it actually rock, thanks to some inspired Keith Moon-like drumming that’s absent elsewhere.

Blueberry Boat’s lyrics answer the pointless question of what the result would be if children’s author Louis Sachar were forced to write a book of poetry in an hour. The Fiery Furnaces deserve some credit here for writing lyrics that reference lost dogs, Dairy Queens and travels to strange lands, but too often the lyrics come across as self-consciously wacky, and they’re filled with easy rhymes and lines that the band obviously didn't spend much time on. For every strange and intriguing lyric, there are five along the lines of “It was my first time running my own ship / But my buddies didn’t care, they didn’t give me no lip”.

There are a number of moments on Blueberry Boat when hooks somehow appear, but they’re spaced so thinly and unevenly over the album’s extremely long duration that they almost seem accidental. There is some promise here in the catchy sections and the occasionally clever lyrics, so perhaps I might like the Fiery Furnaces better with a producer who could help them edit.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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