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Amusing muses
The Fiery Furnaces turn to Grandma
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The Fiery Furnaces' official Web site

Mike Miliard reviews The Fiery Furnaces' Blueberry Boat.

Itís not unusual for a pair of siblings to create an outlandish fantasy world, but few are as open about their strange daydreams and inside jokes as Matt and Eleanor Friedberger, the NYC-based brother-and-sister team known as the Fiery Furnaces. Last year, Blueberry Boat (Rough Trade) tested listenersí tolerance for wordy tales of fruit piracy and lost dogs, babbled over kitchen-sink electro-blues arrangements that often thudded, squelched, and chimed toward the 10-minute mark. All that cliché-smashing was surprisingly catchy, and the disc became an indie success story.

Still, even fans who have learned to expect the unexpected might be thrown for a loop by the Furnacesí forthcoming third album. Rehearsing My Choir (Rough Trade, in stores October 25) is a collection of semi-fictionalized episodes from the life of the Friedbergersí 83-year-old grandmother, Olga Sarantos. It brings this willfully obscure duo close to parody, but they donít flinch, keeping mostly mum as their matriarchís spoken reminiscences provide the lionís share of vocals. "Itís really straightforward," Matt tells me over the phone as the band head to the first date of a tour that comes to the Museum of Fine Arts this Wednesday. "Itís the simplest music you can ever imagine, played very casually, and then thereís a woman sort of talking and a woman singing."

The rush of player-piano trills that opens the album, on "The Garfield El," is simple enough ó no blunt-tipped synth shuffles here, not even a drumbeat. The only thing for the ear to focus on is Sarantosís husky voice, commanding the clacking keys: "Faster, hammers, churn and turn into my late train to my lost love!" Her proud tone belongs to a generation thatís prehistoric by indie standards. "I think of her as a pyramid or some sort of monumental presence on the record," Matt says. "You donít meet people like her on records too often these days."

As Sarantosís cryptic declarations take center stage, supported by melodic turns from Eleanor, the instruments follow her every whim. "The music is supposed to illustrate the anecdotes," Matt explains. "Itís all supposed to be really close to hand, and threadbare." Every so often, there are pleasant reminders of Blueberry Boatís treasure-trove of off-the-wall hooks ó "The Wayfaring Granddaughter" begins with a suave harpsichord-and-hi-hat shimmy, and an electronic squeak dances nimbly over acoustic strumming on "Seven Silver Curses." But before any one track becomes too much like a singable song, itís back to Grandmaís story hour.

"Itís still a rock record, I would argue," Matt says. He begins to rattle off a few less eccentric influences, but only one ó "the parts of girl-group songs or Jan and Dean songs where theyíre narrating whatís going to happen, then the motorcycle crashes" ó bears resemblance to Sarantosís trip down memory lane. "To try to have Eleanor and my grandmother on a record together, thatís the reason for it."

The Furnacesí efforts to capture their grandmotherís personality have taken them outside most pop guidelines, but the affecting story line grounds their idiosyncrasies. Rehearsing My Choir mines rich veins of everyday poetry from Sarantosís detailed soliloquies, though its more strained interludes can sound like a spoken-word slam at the local retirement home.

The Furnacesí next album, Bitter Tea, already finished and slated for an early-2006 release, promises a return to relative normalcy ó Matt mentions lovelorn singing and backwards tape loops. Of course, when I suggest that theyíve split their psych-pop instincts and their urge for sprawling narratives between the two discs they recorded in the last year, he wonít give the easy answer. "Weíre not smart enough to have tendencies one way or the other. We just make whatever seems amusing at the time."

Fiery Furnaces + Man-Man | Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave, Boston | October 12 | 617.369.3306

Issue Date: October 7 - 13, 2005
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