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Good Blueberry Pudding

 

The Fiery Furnaces: Blueberry Boat

Rough Trade, 2004

Rating: 4.0

 

 

Posted: July 28, 2004

By Laurence Station

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 century literature.

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 woman.

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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