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Fiery Furnaces: Blueberry Boat
Rough Trade, 2004
Posted: July 28,
The lyrical cadences of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake ("He
addle liddle phifie Annie ugged the little craythur") supersede sensible, clear-eyed prose. Finnegans Wake is a difficult, some
might say maddeningly inscrutable, read. It makes you work. But, rather
than take an academic approach (be it linguistic or literary), the brave
reader can enjoy Finnegans Wake for its wonderful musical
phrasings, its sinuous rhythms and circuitous, bubbling melodies.
Finnegans Wake is better heard than studied in silence; a
convoluted, multi-interpretative opera by one of the master's of 20th
The Fiery Furnaces' Blueberry Boat also endorses cadence over
clarity, in ways that indirectly echo Joyce's last major work. The
successor to the Brooklyn-based brother-sister duo's comparatively
minimal 2003 release,
Gallowsbird's Bark, Boat finds Eleanor and Matthew
Friedberger luxuriating, like Joyce, in the whimsical eddies and
whirlpools of language. The opening ten-minute mini-suite "Quay Cur" may
owe its dramatically shifting movements to The Who's "A Quick One While
He's Away," but in its Jabberwocky linguistic calisthenics ("Canyglow,
canyglow, canyglow don't say nugo"), the song pays an obvious debt to
the author's experimental, lilting wordplay.
Dates and history, a major Joycean obsession, play a part in "1917,"
which celebrates the last year the Chicago White Sox won the World
Series, with Eleanor lamenting "Why can't we ever win?" (Hey, Eleanor,
don't feel so bad; the Cubs haven't won it all since 1908.) "Spaniolated,"
which follows a young woman kidnapped to Spain and pining for Chicago,
indulges in a bit of nursery-rhyme play ("The pain, the pain, in Spain
falls mainly on me"). Perhaps as a corrective, the playful, shambling
"My Dog Was Lost But Now He's Found" is one of the rare instances where
the duo spells out its lyrical subject matter explicitly: The song
concerns Eleanor kicking her dog, and then having to track the pet down
after he runs away.
High seas travel is a recurring theme here (most noticeably on the
opening and title tracks), but there are also songs reminiscent of
Eleanor's travelogues from Gallowsbird's Bark ("Straight Street"
is a rollicking ramble through Damascus that examines, among other
things, cell phone market penetration). And for sheer Joycean excess,
there's the gratuitous guitar freakout championing "Chief Inspector
Blancheflower," which relates the experiences of a wannabe typewriter
repairman, a police investigation, and a fraternal tug of war over a
Blueberry Boat isn't as thematically sprawling as Wake,
which dealt with everything from the circular nature of history to a
questionable incident between a pub owner and two children in a park.
But neither does it wrap up as neatly as Wake, which seamlessly
flows back to its beginning. It's more recklessly indulgent than
skillfully improvisational in its aggressively shifting parts and
over-baked Hendrix 101 guitar solos. It also begins to run out of gas
toward the end of its seventy-six minute running time. Like
Finnegans Wake, it can be a taxing chore, demanding much of its
audience and offering variable returns. Unlike Wake, it's hardly
a masterpiece, but it earns major points for explicating the sheer
thrill of creation. While it may not be the orgiastic smorgasbord of pop
delicacies The Fiery Furnaces aimed for, it's nonetheless one of the
most ambitious pop albums released this year.
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