Does It Remind You of When?
The Fiery Furnaces Tribute Their Grandma, and the Beatles

I got an email from my old roommate and good friend Gary Porro today, asking me for a favor.

Gary and I have talked or emailed an average of once a day since 1992, and he’s never asked for anything as far as I can remember. Well, he did ask me to dress up in a tux and go to his wedding, but that’s forgivable. And I refused to dance, so I got the last laugh. Anyway, Gary lives and works in Boston, and he has a passion for old buildings and good movies, and it just so happens that his request deals with all three. I’ll let him have the floor:

“I hope you don’t mind me asking for a favor.

It seems the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square is in danger of closing down. The Brattle is one of the few places left in the Boston area that is still showing independent films. They are running a fund raising drive to attempt to raise the $400,000 they need to stay in business. I was wondering if you might not mind throwing out a link to their campaign in your next column?

I figure between your Boston area readers and general film lovers it might do some good. Here’s the link.

Thanks, G.”

I’ve never been to the Brattle myself, but I’m all for preserving independent theaters, especially those with historical significance. They’re apparently trying to turn the theater from a nearly-bankrupt for-profit business to a stable non-profit, and though I have no idea how that’s going to work, the idea of a home-grown movie house that chooses its films based on quality alone is something of a rare treasure. Anyway, check this out for yourself, and if you feel so inclined, there are donation links on their page.

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At this point, calling the Fiery Furnaces eccentric is like calling Karl Rove a little dishonest.

The Furnaces are, without doubt, the strangest and most interesting new band in years – as prolific and ambitious as Frank Zappa, and as raw and indie as Spoon. It’s becoming obvious that the Furnaces are on a fast burn out of our solar system, and they don’t care if you can keep up or not. They are self-indulgent, to be sure, but brilliant enough to back it up, and delightfully weird enough to remain entertaining all the while.

Their first album, Gallowsbird’s Bark, was barely a hint of their capabilities – bluesy and simplistic, crudely recorded, fun yet forgettable. They seemed to know it, too – while some bands wait until their fifth or sixth album to unveil their 80-minute concept record, the Furnaces dumped Blueberry Boat on us less than a year after their debut. An enormous work, full of 10-minute garage-prog workouts and glorious inanities, Blueberry Boat left many a Gallowsbird’s fan in the dust. Its twisting structures and mix-and-match arrangements were the very personification of restlessness. I loved it.

Those who couldn’t stick with Blueberry Boat through the numerous listens required to hear how all the disparate parts coalesced should probably avoid the third Furnaces full-length, Rehearsing My Choir. It is, believe it or not, weirder, in both concept and execution, and will sound to impatient listeners like a random experiment gone horribly awry. This is the album on which the Fiery Ones abandon all connection to traditional song structure and the rules of pop records. But those who navigated Boat’s twisting waters will find much to love here.

The Fiery Furnaces are Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, siblings with an uncommon bond, and while everything they do is a family affair, Choir is more so – the equivalent of a tattered scrapbook of memories set to music. It’s a radio play of sorts, and it stars the Friedbergers’ grandmother, 82-year-old Olga Sarantos. Choir is a collection of stories, narrated by Sarantos in her odd, husky voice while her grandchildren play off-kilter, endlessly shifting accompaniments. It’s a tribute and a reminiscence, and it includes not an ounce of treacly sentiment, yet manages to be strangely moving all the same.

You might expect a level of disconnect here, perhaps Sarantos recording her stories separately while the Friedbergers score them, and you’d be wrong. Sarantos is a full participant, obviously vibing on the alien music Matthew and Eleanor laid down. These songs were written for this piece, and they wouldn’t work without Sarantos. Often, she will voice her present-day thoughts, while Eleanor plays the part of her younger self, and the conversations between the two are surprisingly funny.

I’ve honestly never heard anything like this record. It’s divided into 11 tracks, but it needn’t be – it’s one hour-long piece, and certain themes tied to certain emotions keep resurfacing throughout. If you’re not paying attention to the track numbers on your CD player, you’ll miss the transitions, so smooth is the whole thing. It sounds like the Friedbergers tried to write a programmatic symphony and then record it for 60 bucks, but the ramshackle quality is deceptive, and almost certainly intentional. These pieces are amazingly complicated, even though the arrangements often consist of little more than a piano or an organ.

And the stories! The album opens with Sarantos hopping a train to return to her lost love, and ends with her arriving at his funeral. In between, we get to hear anecdotes and memories of her life in Chicago, stories about donut shop owners who treated bullet wounds with blackberry filling, and about confrontations with the Arch-Bishop, and about finding and keeping love. Everything is told in a circular fashion, like distant memory itself, and it takes a few listens to get the timelines worked out.

The album’s centerpiece, if there is one, is the nine-minute “Seven Silver Curses,” a tale unto itself about Sarantos’ quest to hex her competition and win her husband’s love. There’s an album’s worth of ideas in this one song alone, volleying from heartfelt to hilarious. This song, and all of Rehearsing My Choir, perfectly balances the sentimental and the silly, turning what could have been a maudlin and uninteresting family slideshow into an engaging, even beautiful, poetic meditation on age and change. Because it’s so funny and strange, it cuts deeper.

Choir ends with a song whose title you’ll have heard several times in earlier tracks: “Does It Remind You of When.” And even here, the story of her husband’s funeral, the balance remains – Sarantos complains about the broken upright piano, the parking, and the construction noise before ruminating on her lost relatives and loves: “And I thought of them in the cold hard ground, I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now…” The music, meanwhile, brings back old themes, pulling this brilliant patchwork together. It ends up a sad celebration, a blissful melancholy.

Rehearsing My Choir is perhaps the Furnaces’ most insular recording, demanding much – some may say too much – of the listener. But to my mind, it is also their most universal. I wish I had a document like this of my grandmother’s life, narrated in her voice, but it’s too late – my mother’s mother is gone, my father’s mother cannot remember stories like these. Choir is an album for anyone who longs to hold on to the past, even as they watch it slip away. It’s more of a movie than a pop record, one with a large, open heart beneath its quick cuts and jagged focus.

Word is that the Furnaces have already completed their fourth album, Bitter Tea, and it’s scheduled for release early next year. It’s reportedly more traditional than Choir, which is a shame – the Friedbergers have staked out an ambitious and wondrous flight path with their last couple of records, and I would love to see what strange planet they end up orbiting. They are like no other band I know. Many of the negative reviews of Choir plead for a return to the danceable rock of Gallowsbird’s Bark, as if anything that’s not catchy and in 4/4 time isn’t worth pursuing. Speaking just for myself, I like to be challenged by excellence, and the Furnaces’ music is definitely challenging, and just as definitely excellent.

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The Furnaces also contributed to one of this month’s most fascinating projects. It’s called This Bird Has Flown, and it’s a track-by-track tribute to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, which turns 40 this year.

It’s an interesting choice. Though roundly referred to as a masterpiece, Rubber Soul is a transitional record, a halfway point between the infectious pop of the early records and the revolutionary sounds of Revolver. It contains some amazing songs, but it’s often a tentative thing – perhaps the best album ever from any other band, but a B+ record from the Fab Four.

And as you may expect, the reverence many feel for these songs has informed most of the cover versions. The Donnas, for example, turn in a version of “Drive My Car” that’s pretty much identical, like they found the 1965 master tapes and just sang over them. Dar Williams does a nice folk-rock version of “You Won’t See Me,” and Rhett Miller adds his twangy resonance to “Girl.” While it is neat to hear someone other than John or Paul sing some of these tunes, the Beatles are the most covered band in pop music history, so adding nothing new feels like a wasted opportunity.

But on the other hand, what can be added to these songs? “Nowhere Man” is already perfect, and Low just performs it, with their usual minimalism. Same with Ben Lee’s acoustic take on “In My Life,” perhaps the album’s prettiest number – he omits the harpsichord interlude, but otherwise, it’s a straight cover. And I have to admit, when I heard what Ben Harper had done to “Michelle,” all reggae beats, I cringed. Maybe note-for-note is the way to go.

But no, the most interesting numbers here are the ones that go for broke. It may be down to the fact that I’ve heard Rubber Soul something like 700 times, but I enjoyed Ted Leo’s clipped, hyper take on “I’m Looking Through You,” and Nellie McKay’s jazzy pirouette through “If I Needed Someone.” I didn’t even mind the Cowboy Junkies flipping the genders on their creepy “Run For Your Life,” a version which emphasizes the menace inherent in the song. The aforementioned Furnaces try on “Norwegian Wood,” playing it in their usual style – by which I mean they turn it into a low-budget-sounding prog workout, Eleanor harmonizing with herself before Matthew sucks the song into a black hole. It’s awesome.

Most impressive here is Sufjan Stevens (of course), who I believe picked “What Goes On” purposely. Ringo’s token number is generally considered the weakest link on Rubber Soul, and Stevens must have known that no one would care if he desecrated it. With that in mind, he tossed everything but the lyrics, and came up with a huge mini-opera, all strings and horns and a riff from “Achilles’ Last Stand.” It sounds like a b-side to Illinois, which is a good thing. Stevens is the only one here who showed me something new, even if he had to junk all but the most tenuous connections to the original recording to do it.

And there’s the question about tribute records – should they remain reverent, or give artists a chance to stretch out and reinvent? When it comes to the Beatles, that reverence is almost a given, so it’s surprising and kind of cool to hear someone like Stevens step so outside an obvious influence. I already have Rubber Soul – it’s imprinted on my memory, never to be erased – so why would I need another version of it? These are great songs, no question, and I credit This Bird Has Flown for providing a nice mix of the straight covers and the rewrites.

I expect that balance will be harder to maintain if Razor and Tie Records decides to keep going with this series – what would a tribute to the White Album sound like? Will Stevens turn in a seven-minute full-orchestra remake of “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” – but I am fascinated by the prospect. This Bird Has Flown is worth hearing, if for nothing else than as a testament to the enduring beauty of these songs. How many of this year’s most popular records will still be pored over, covered and toasted 40 years from now? My bet is none.

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In the coming weeks, we have Trey Anastasio, Neal Morse, the long-awaited return of Kate Bush, the other half of System of a Down’s album, and the third and final Ryan Adams album of the year. The top 10 list is taking shape, and it’s a good one this year.

See you in line Tuesday morning.