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Divide and Convolute

The Fiery Furnaces' Blueberry Boat has indie rockers confused: Are the brother and sister hacks, geniuses or somehow both?

While opera certainly tells a story, the story is secondary to the grandiose themes and sentiments that puff up the genre into the campy colossus that draws both drooling zeal and disparaging disgust. Program music, on the other hand, is about oozing the story out of the music's every pore, from a fleeting piano solo to a recurring melodic motif to the slightest whisper from a snare drum; each sound, whether it's meant to stand for a narrative detail or a character nuance, adds its bit, and taken as a whole, they flesh out the body and limbs of the story.

The individual tracks of Blueberry Boat are mixed so that, while Eleanor's voice is higher in the mix, her vocals, holding tightly to an unobtrusive little five-note range, for the most part, are practically on equal footing with the rest of the layers. Matt explains this aesthetic thusly: "[W]hat I think a lot of people find as the annoying music on the record is supposed to be program music, is supposed to tell the story the way the vocals do…one is the picture and one is the dialogue, so to speak."

As Matt suggests, program music is a trying genre to begin with, but the Fiery Furnaces' program music is complicated further. For example, the band has taken to playing what Matt calls a "47-minute medley of our songs, the first two albums all jumbled together, backwards and forwards" during its live shows.

Staring at the sunfish: The Fiery Furnaces exercise their glower power.
Staring at the sunfish: The Fiery Furnaces exercise their glower power.

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Matt's justification for this trick is that he likes "to have these little, real simple parts and you put them in different contexts and it could be interesting. You know, why not not stop playing for 45 minutes?" That the band has the ability to mix and match parts of its songs speaks to both Matt's genius as an impresario and Eleanor's capacity for remembering lyrics. But this little gimmick does tend to, to put it mildly, convolute the tale they're trying to drive home with all that programming.

And this is the other difficulty with Blueberry Boat: Every minutia of the music is about the story, but what the hell is the story about? And do we care? Whether they want to or not, the Fiery Furnaces make us work not only to understand, but also to even appreciate the music. And once one has put all the work in on Blueberry Boat, is one either thrilled or revolted enough to have made that work worth it? Is it Joyce or bad beat poetry? Is it John Cage or a marching band geek's tinkering with Bitches Brew?

After another lengthy description of the programmatic elements of the title track, Matt laughs and says, "Obviously, that sounds like a bunch of bullshit. But, you know, there's nothing wrong with a bunch of bullshit." And more than a propensity for pastiche or an aptitude for alliterative storytelling or even a desire to revive the mini-opera, that willingness to embrace both the greatness and the crap, just so long as you're trying to do something, is the Fiery Furnaces' true genius and the album's claim to fun and entertainment. In the band's creative approach and our attempts to like it, the process, rather than the product, is the point. (How's that for alliteration, Friedbergers?)

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