You’ve got to hand it to Pitchfork. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that this online indie music publication — a monster in comparison to all of the others — has had a tremendous effect on the tastes of music fans and the success of certain bands. New releases that manage to earn a high rating from one of the site’s many writers are immediately launched to stratospheric levels of hype and interest, and names once only known by the extremely in-the-know find themselves on the tongue of just about every hipster, scenester, and whatever-ster in the online universe.
It’s not the only website of it’s kind, and it would be wrong to say it has been solely responsible for the success and appreciation of many new artists. But few websites wield as much power as the ‘Fork does with its opinions, which are enough to send waves through the indie community and color the reviews of every other music writer out there, whose pieces become comparative essays against the high ratings of the media giant.
The aforementioned site has turned kids on to all sorts of new styles of music, but never did I think something like The Fiery Furnaces’ Blueberry Boat would be such a hyped-up item. A vibrant carnival of vaudevillian quirkiness, bluesy rock, and childhood playfulness, and wrapped up in the candy-coated flamboyance that is characterized by Broadway musicals, it’s not exactly conventional. Nor is it easy listening. The band, whose core members are brother and sister Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, switch tempos, styles, and moods like a frog jumping from log to log in a 16-bit videogame (and sometimes sounding like one too). Blueberry Boat is a huge release and it takes quite some time to get your head around it all.
That’s assuming you can get past the first track, a ten-minute piece titled “Quay Cur.” The song starts with a two-chord piano melody and a crunching electronic beat that squiggles and snaps along for two minutes until Eleanor comes in with her distinct vocals, dishing out word after word in a mish-mash of lyrics that leads up to an oddly catchy chorus. But that’s only the beginning. About halfway through the song morphs into a rocking bluesy number, and then a slow-burning tribal stomper, and then a twinkling, mellow piano interlude, and finally a tumbling, operatic repetition of the first movement. If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is.
One listen to the track showcases one of the band’s most immediate strengths: their lyrics. Defying every sort of convention and cliché listeners have become accustomed to, they put plenty of colorful and crazy words — and sometimes gibberish — into the songs, using words as much for their phonetics as for their meaning.
The title track crams even more into its 9-minute running length than the first does into its 10. It starts out great with a beat that smashes over keyboards, sounding like a Nintendo game fast forwarded and put on overdrive. But the band ditches that idea in less then a minute, and tries many many more, from whimsical little ditties with swirling piano and organ to dramatic Led Zeppelin-ish rock operas, and plenty in-between. It can all get pretty damn disorienting.
And that is the flaw with this album. The frequent stylistic changes make for an often-frustrating listen. The band reaches a good moment but it rarely lasts long before it’s often replaced with something completely different. The memorable singalongs are lost in a mess of usually obnoxious noodlings, noises, and yammering avant pop, and it barely seems worth the effort to traverse through it all and find the diamonds in the musical rough.
The album’s middle section contains some of those diamonds, if you have the patience to get there. Mercifully short and compact, “Paw Paw Tree” and “My Dog Was Lost And Now He’s Found” are two straight-up rock n’roll songs, accented with spacey sonics and the offspring of guitar pedal distortions. Eleanor sounds downright soulful in the latter song, and her vocals are impressive. “Mason City” is pretty great too, with a beautiful and catchy opening movement that lasts for three blissful minutes before the band tries something new. Later in the song, it slows to a pretty and dreamy acoustic ballad. There’s another aural treat near the album’s end — more than an hour after it all began — in “Birdie Brain,” which is a smiley happy little song that sounds like a carnival fun house on drugs.
Returning back to the question posed by those who read that Pitchfork review: Is the hype justified? In a word or three, no, probably not. While the band deserves tremendous accolades for being so daring and trying something new, the album is just too long, clambering, and meandering to listen to in one sitting. The band has all the fascination and willingness to explore of a toddler, and their playful and exciting take to music is charming and invigorating. But their childish whimsy and wackiness is also their downfall, as it results in schizophrenic, overlong multi-songs. Although it definitely has its awesome moments, the album is for the most part an adventure that is not as worth taking as all the hype might lead you to think.
Written by Richie DeMaria.
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I've also written for Christ and Pop Culture, ScreenAnarchy, Filmwell, and Christian Research Journal. I pay the bills by creating beautiful user interfaces and websites for Firespring and Red Bicycle.