The Michigan Daily discovered in November 2004 that several articles written by arts editor Alex Wolsky did not meet the newspaper’s standard of ethical journalism. Parts of these stories had been plagiarized from other news sources. Although the article below has not been found to contain plagiarism, the Daily no longer stands by its content. For details, see the Daily’s editorial.
Though he quit music over 20 years ago, Captain Beefheart still casts a long shadow over rock’n’roll’s avant-garde. Though his albums never sold well, their influence has been enormous, and his work has been a touchstone for bands ranging from Pere Ubu to the Clash. The brother and sister duo of Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, AKA the Fiery Furnaces, have taken heavy doses of Beefheart as well, and it shows on their sophomore LP Blueberry Boat.
Their debut, Gallowsbird Bark, merely hinted at the experimental boundaries the duo would push with Blueberry Boat. It strays far from the strangely jolly, vintage flair of their debut and fully embraces their exuberant, whimsical ideas.
Their music is theatrical — part Captain Beefheart (“Quay Cur”), part Gilbert and Sullivan (“Mason City”). Eleanor’s sultry vocals cascade over Matthew’s slinky guitar lines on the start-stop rhythms of “Straight Street,” creating an astonishing combination of soulful conventionality and audacious invention.
The other side of the Fiery Furnaces’ coin is garage-rock — they imitate their predecessors (the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith), yet try to distance their sound from others’. “Straight Street” and “Chris Michaels” both drive with heavy, distorted guitars which guide Eleanor’s trigger-happy vocals. The duo’s music carries much more of the garage-rock attitude than a sonic similarity. “I Lost My Dog” is full of fuzz-tone guitar coupled with the quick, sleazy vocals of the garage-rock movement — they create that charming kitchen-sink feel with plenty of edge to keep you engrossed.
Matthew’s playing is engaging as well, with a fluidity that grounds the music in blues even while pulling it away from garage-rock’s predictability. The most impressive trait of Blueberry Boat is its stylistic range, which stretches from the doo-wop-derived harmonies of “Spaniolated” to the airy, ambient “Bird Brain” and the piano ballad “Catamaran Man.”
But Blueberry Boat can’t quite keep its focus. Individual songs feature more hooks, time changes and melodies than whole albums may contain. Throughout some of the disc’s longest tracks, it’s nearly impossible to tell when one song ends and another begins; each track feels the same way.
In the end, this weakens Blueberry Boat because listeners are too busy trying to figure out what just happened to realize what’s happening here and now. But in time, its quick, odd movement becomes rational, and while many of the transitions don’t work, those that do sound wonderfully sequenced. Yet, like Captain Beefheart before them, the Fiery Furnaces’ music is often misunderstood even by their most cherished suitors, who seem dazzled by its virtuosic weirdness without understanding any of its brilliantly laid, underlying structure or intensely focused stylistic discipline.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.