Back in 2003 when The Fiery Furnaces released their debut, Gallowsbird’s Bark, many critics lumped them with neo-garage revivalists The White Stripes. Roughly 80 percent of this knee-jerk association can be attributed to the fact that The Fiery Furnaces are led by a brother/sister duo (of course, Jack and Meg White are actually… oh, never mind) and 20 percent had to do with the band’s sound. Though they rocked and enjoyed a good riff, Bark reveled in an eclecticism that kept the garage rock suit from fitting terribly snug, and the Furnaces seemed too happy painting outside the lines anyway to bother with how they were filed.
With their follow-up, Blueberry Boat, the Furnaces have brushed aside the canvas completely and started slopping paint directly on the easel. Abandoning conventional pop structure altogether, they’ve crafted 13 tracks that stretch over 70 minutes, many of which are divided, suite-like, into discrete movements. The default label for a record of this description is “prog,” but that term doesn’t really fit. A better reference would be the Broadway musical, though the band says it was inspired by The Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away.”
Wherever the roots and whatever the reasons, Blueberry Boat contains some truly exceptional music. Building most songs on piano, Matthew Friedberger displays a keen understanding of operatic composition, intuiting precisely which melodic fragments will sound great mashed together. I’m tempted to liken his approach to Meatloaf svengali Jim Steinman, another songwriter who thought four catchy songs would sound better if he could find a way to braid them into one very long and very catchy rock symphony, but the differences are too glaring. The Fiery Furnaces are indie rockers possessing a meager budget, which Blueberry Boat’s sound reminds us. Though the album possesses dynamic range and instrumental variety, the songs never seem to offer the kind of layering such epic music demands. When the “guitar section” comes in for a big climax, it’s usually just the one. Compared to most epic rock, Blueberry Boat sounds like a glorified demo, though a very good one.
And then there are the lyrics, sung alternately by Mathew and sister Eleanor, who emerges as an oddly compelling and bookish indie soul woman. The songs tell stories but remain cryptic—imbued with clever wordplay—and dense with curious rhyme and meter. “I went down to the market where tied up you used to bark at / Went where you got adopted felt so bad I nearly dropped dead” is a typically playful couplet from the insanely grabby “My Dog Was Lost But Now He’s Found.” The lyrics, copious as they are, prove a continual treat, and the multi-part melodies are unusual and memorable. An album as vast and sprawling as Blueberry Boat is all about how its pieces fit together, which is precisely why this one stays so effortlessly afloat.