Turns Out, It Is the Size of Your Boat
Getting Huge with The Fiery Furnaces and the Polyphonic Spree

I read an article in Spin Magazine this week…

And here I need to stop and clarify, in case anyone gets the hilariously mistaken idea that I am a regular reader of Spin Magazine. Despite often hysterical contributions from Dave Eggers, Spin remains a pretty excremental rag, full of trend-hopping and style-over-substance “journalism.” In the very issue I read, in fact, they call the Hives the “best live band ON THE PLANET.” I have decided that calling anything the “best (blank) ON THE PLANET” will now be my favorite hyperbole – “Damn, Dr. Scholl’s makes the best foot odor removers ON THE PLANET,” or, “John Paul II is just the best Pope ON THE PLANET!”

Hyperbole is fine once in a while (see my Black Crowes articles for my own “best (blank) in the world” statements), but every other issue these guys seem to crown something else the best whatever. In this month’s issue they also counted down the 50 best frontmen OF ALL TIME, and wasn’t the guy from the Hives (Howlin’ Spinnin’ Fuckin’ Almquist, or something like that) on the list? Why yes, I think he was. In 10 years, when no one remembers who these pukes are, and Spin is still (shudder) doing these lists, I wonder if we’ll see Almquist’s name? I doubt it.

So anyway.

I read an article in Spin Magazine this week about the sad dearth of long, multi-part songs these days, and I actually couldn’t agree more. My favorite song of the year so far is 18 minutes long, and my second-favorite is 12. (“Ocean Cloud” and “Neverland,” both by Marillion, in case you were wondering.) Long-form composition seems to be a lost art. In decades past, the biggest bands in the world (the Beatles, Led Zeppelin) took their status as an opportunity to stretch musically, crafting songs far longer than the established radio system of the day would dictate (“Hey Jude” and “A Day in the Life,” “Dazed and Confused” and “Kashmir”).

These days the biggest bands in the world are so terrified of losing their spot at the top that they timidly churn out same-sounding stuff year after year. There’s no sense of adventure, no danger, no heart-stopping, floor-dropping-out-beneath-you feeling of unpredictability. The last extremely popular band to try vertigo as a modus operandi was Radiohead, and we all saw what happened to them. It’s a shame that their post-OK Computer output has been all but artistically bankrupt, because the rise and fall of what was once the best band ON THE PLANET certainly gives those looking to stay uber-rich and famous pause.

That’s why the flavors of the moment are going to keep giving the people what they want. You will never see a Franz Ferdinand song that doesn’t sound exactly like what they’re doing now. Ambition, however, is just like anything else – it’s there, you just have to look for it. The problem with our pals at Spin is that when they say there aren’t any ambitious epics being made anymore, what they mean is that there aren’t any being made by the “cool” bands the trends have dictated they embrace.

There’s actually a very good example to be found in the pages of that very magazine – in the reviews page, you’ll see the latest by the Fiery Furnaces, Blueberry Boat, slated for being “a joyless slog through mossy folk tedium.” It’s mystifying – I can understand a mag like Spin not reviewing the polished likes of Marillion and Neal Morse, but the Furnaces have scrappy indie cred to sloppy up their ambition. And despite (for me it’s a despite) a four-track mentality and a garage-band aesthetic, the Furnaces have made the most giddily eccentric tower of musical surprises you’re likely to hear this year.

The Fiery Furnaces are Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, a sibling combo from Illinois. Their debut, Gallowsbirds Bark, is an oddly unimpressive chunk of lo-fi blues drivel, but there are some nifty moments. There’s nothing, though, that even hints at the expansive reach of Blueberry Boat. Imagine if Yes had leapt forward to Close to the Edge immediately following their blues-rock debut, without the intermediate steps of The Yes Album and Fragile, and you get an idea of how disorienting and surprising this album is.

Apologies for the prog-rock analogy, but it’s apt. Blueberry Boat is stuffed to the gills with lengthy suites, synthesizer lines and tricky time changes – it’s only a few flute solos and some lyrics about wizards away from classic prog. The record’s 13 tracks clock in at more than 76 minutes, nearly twice the length of Gallowsbirds, and there are four songs that snuggle up to the 10-minute mark. It’s a time-consuming journey, but it’s never boring thanks to the Friedbergers’ everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-and-what-the-hell-throw-in-the-whole-kitchen-too approach.

On first listen, Blueberry Boat sounds, to put it kindly, chaotic. The Furnaces burn through ideas so quickly here that it seems like they’re trying to squeeze three albums’ worth into 76 minutes. Opener “Quay Cur” includes four or five distinct movements in a very quick 10 and a half minutes, and makes use of drum computers, pianos, static, tape manipulation, all manner of guitars and a bizarre, staccato vocal melody from Eleanor Friedberger. It’s one of the craziest, most fascinating songs of the year, and it’s just the opening act.

One could be forgiven for expecting the loopy, expansive vision to falter now and then over Blueberry Boat’s running time, but it doesn’t. Even Gallowsbirds-style songs like “Straight Street” and “My Dog Was Lost But Now He’s Found” fit in well, providing simple bridges between the more experimental moments. The album retains its off-kilter, slightly off-key tone throughout, but the Furnaces manage moments of beauty amidst the insanity, particularly at the end of “1917” and on the title track. The arrangements are all over the map – instruments will appear for four measures, then disappear, and the percussion is constantly shifting.

The lyrics are similarly restless, and often sound made up on the spot. Some are elliptical, but most are stream-of-consciousness, as in the strange romantic conversation at the end of “Chief Inspector Blancheflower.” The title track is a pirate story, and “Spaniolated” is the nonsensical tale of an 18-year-old research engineer who is kidnapped and drugged while walking home from TCBY. (It concludes with the repeated line, “The pain in Spain falls mainly on me.”) While much of the wordplay is fun, it’s obvious that the Furnaces have much more to say musically than they do lyrically.

Despite all the exciting ideas and skillful arrangements, the Furnaces seem to have thrown this record together in the studio, perhaps in their haste to get all these thoughts down before new ones took their places in their brains. They miss the beat a few times too often for my taste, and I can’t help thinking what these manic geniuses could do with some real money and production technique. Of course, that way lies professionalism and polish, two things anathema to the indie rock ethos – I can imagine this band’s fans crying sellout should they ever create anything with the edges smoothed off.

Even though this album is too disjointed to consider it completely successful, the Furnaces have defiantly established themselves as a band unlike any other. Reportedly the group’s live shows are just as restless as the records, with songs appended to other songs and arrangements completely reinvented, Frank Zappa style. Blueberry Boat is the kind of crossroads that bands usually come to after five or six increasingly expansive albums – their choices seem to be to either re-focus and create something concise, or go all-out and make three-hour collections that few will buy.

Or, knowing them, they’ll do something else entirely, something unexpected and thrilling. I would bet money, though, that we will someday see an out-and-out masterpiece from the Fiery Furnaces.

No, if I’m going to use the word “masterpiece,” I’m going to use it for an album that rings by particular chime from beginning to end, one that achieves the full potential of an artist. We’ve actually seen more than the usual share of masterpieces this year, and now we can add one more – the spectacular second album by the Polyphonic Spree, Together We’re Heavy.

The Spree is the brainchild of former Tripping Daisy frontman Tim DeLaughter, conceived as the only band big enough to give him the sound he heard in his head. The Spree is, at last count, a 22-member ensemble that hits like an orchestra and caresses like a Beatlesque rock band. Their vibe is relentlessly positive, but their intense instrumentation affords them the dynamic range to make even the most treacly sentiments resonate.

DeLaughter’s project first appeared last year, with an album presumptuously titled The Beginning Stages of the Polyphonic Spree. Despite its pompous arrival, the record turned out to be a half-assed EP with a 36-minute monotone drone appended to the end. While some of the songs were interesting, most were little more than endlessly repetitive choruses played with brassy oomph. The Spree’s first outing just didn’t live up to the hype, but with Together We’re Heavy here to provide contrast, it was obviously a glorified demo.

Heavy is the real thing. This is the full flower, an album that utilizes the orchestral instruments as more than volume providers. You can hear the difference even from the first song, “A Long Day Continues/We Sound Amazed.” This eight-minute stunner glides in softly, then explodes with a memorable motif, slipping into a heartbreaking piano-led melody and a surging chorus. Halfway through, the song evaporates, finally coalescing again into a thudding, constantly building coda. This is what an idea like the Polyphonic Spree should sound like, and I’m glad it finally does.

And to follow up “We Sound Amazed” with an absolutely euphoric pop song like “Hold Me Now” is just blissful. Here the Beatles are most prominently referenced, but very few artists are producing full-on orchestral pomp-pop like this anymore, and it’s a style that radiates joy. Not everything here is so utterly sunny – “One Man Show” is deep, dark and textured, and the massive “When the Fool Becomes a King” gets downright scary – but there hasn’t been a celebration of the pure delight of making huge, jubilant, dramatic pop music like this in some time. Together We’re Heavy sounds like the clouds parting around a shaft of brilliant light in a dream, and the muted closing title track sounds like gently waking up.

This is another one of those cases in which words fail me. I can tell you that the Spree’s sound is huge and powerful and joyous and layered and deep, but the words mean nothing when compared to the music. Even if you heard the first album, trust me, you don’t know what to expect from this one. I don’t know what else to say that wouldn’t be hyperbole, except this: with Together We’re Heavy, the Polyphonic Spree has become the best 22-member orchestral sunshine pop band ON THE PLANET.

I can’t fail to give props to my faithful correspondent and friend Erin Kennedy, who first recommended the Fiery Furnaces to me. Erin’s musical taste is even more varied than mine, I think – she appreciates everything from the Velvet Underground to Simon and Garfunkel to Ani DiFranco – and she knew the Furnaces were worth listening to before I did. Plus, she’s a born writer, and her emails (roughly 10 dozen so far…) are always fun to read. So thanks, E. Hope you like Blueberry Boat as much as I do, ’cause I might not have heard it at all without your suggestion.

Next week, Bill Mallonee.

See you in line Tuesday morning.