(Part 5 of an ongoing series)
The most polarizing music-related discussion I’ve ever had was about The Fiery Furnaces’ epic 2nd album Blueberry Boat. It was the summer of 2004, not long after the album came out. 8 people from our circle of 15 or so 23-ish year-old friends were hanging out in my East Village apartment when Bobby, Kelly, Leslie* and I voted to play Blueberry Boat, which each of us had been really into lately, and we hoped the half of the group who hadn’t heard it yet would be similarly blown away.
*All names in this piece that do not belong to Fiery Furnaces have been changed.
By the middle of the second track, stark lines had been drawn. The half of the group listening for the first time were not only not very impressed, they basically hated this album. Less than 15 minutes in, they seemed to be spending more time expressing trivial and/or ill-informed criticisms than paying attention to the music- music that was, to half the ears in the room, whimsical, unprecedented and endlessly fascinating. To my ears, it was like hearing a benign form of schizophrenia, fun as hell and just a little bit unnerving. Or running through the various rooms of some M.C. Escher-designed building that’s part mad carnival and part haunted house, and your tour guides are a brother and sister who sound like precocious autistic savants.
“Why can’t they just stay in a pocket?!” complained Brett, a technical-minded suit who occasionally played bass for a folky R&B songstress. “They change the groove every 30 seconds!” As if every band had to be Parliament and ride a steady groove for 6 and a half minutes. Then: “They keep repeating that same part!” referring to the refrain of one particular song that came up after a few measures of each verse, as refrains tend to do. As if he’d never heard a freaking refrain before, and the very idea was the epitome of hackyness. “It doesn’t sound honest! It’s not like, ‘This is who I am, and here’s where I’m coming from!” As if every musician had to be an “authentic,” confessional singer/songwriter, and wasn’t allowed to tell imaginative stories about fictional characters; also as if The Fiery Furnaces’ idiosyncratic style didn’t say anything at all about the personalities and experiences of Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger. “What kind of lyrics are these? ‘Taco lettuce crunch crunch?’ ‘Tony of the Franklin Park Hockey Club went to Gunzo’s to buy a goalie glove?'” As if all lyrics had to use ordinary words to describe ordinary details. Brett was so busy complaining he obviously missed one of the greatest lyrics ever penned, in the title track when Eleanor, as the intrepid captain of the Blueberry Boat, says, “At dawn I had a scotch, and I made them switch off the porn/ ’cause there’s nothing that’s dirty ’bout the ocean in the morn.” Perhaps Brett had valid, well-thought-out reasons why he hated this music. But he seemed so bewildered by it all that he could only spit out confused and contradictory reasons for why it offended him so much.
Rick, Fred and Tommy were, like myself, more music-geeky than Brett- each of us wrote about music and played in at least two bands. Rick, Fred and Tommy’s hatred of Blueberry Boat seemed more focused than Brett’s, but no less faulty. Rick and Fred felt that what The Fiery Furnaces were doing had already been done much better by the likes of other musicians, in particular, Captain Beefheart. Now I love Captain Beefheart, and it’s certainly true that he played a big part in paving the way for artists like The Fiery Furnaces, with his contorted melodies, unorthodox rhythms and Dada poetry. And of course, I don’t think it’s foolish to prefer Beefheart to The Fiery Furnaces. Nor is it foolish to like neither of them, if that’s not your bag. It is, however, totally unreasonable to say that Beefheart already did everything The Fiery Furnaces were doing and try to pass that off as a valid criticism of Blueberry Boat.
Tommy had written off The Fiery Furnaces months earlier, after seeing them perform live supporting their debut album Gallowsbird’s Bark. He decided the band was a flash-in-the-pan that tried to disguise sub-par songwriting with wacky arrangements and spacey synthesizers. That may be true of a few Fiery Furnaces songs, but not for most of their songs, and especially not for the vast majority of Blueberry Boat. The spacey wackiness only enhances the well-written songs, which have plenty of wonderful hooks, sophisticated melodies, short story-like narratives, mellifluous lyrics, dramatic dynamics and complicated emotions. Tommy boldly predicted that in a year or two, after the Pitchfork-fueled hype died down, none of us would still care about The Fiery Furnaces.
I don’t think we made it halfway through the album until we had to stop and put on something everyone could enjoy. A Kinks greatest hits compilation, if I remember correctly.
Seven years later, I still follow The Fiery Furnaces, and I’m still leagues-deep in love with Blueberry Boat. I don’t love all of it, particularly not the annoying nyah-nyah tune sung during the first 3 minutes of the otherwise enjoyable “Chief Inspector Blancheflower.” I wish the album were closer to an hour instead of 76 minutes long; the last 5 tracks/18 minutes don’t possess quite the same transcendental magic as the first 8 tracks/58 minutes. But I would have to upload the whole album onto my Post-Apocalyptic iPod. Not to include it in its entirety would feel like slicing a hole in “The Starry Night.”
And seven years later, my circle of friends is, not surprisingly, much different. Most of the people who hated Blueberry Boat happen to be people I don’t really care about anymore. I don’t not care about them only because they hated this album, or mostly because they hated it, but yes, I do believe there’s some kind of significant correlation there.
While I’m not necessarily close with the ones who loved Blueberry Boat, I still, to some degree, care about them. Bobby and I no longer live a few blocks away from each other on St. Mark’s Place, so we don’t get to hang out nearly as much. But we still get together a few times a year, usually at gatherings arranged by mutual friends, and (almost) every year we have a joint party to celebrate our shared birthday. And I still think he’s a very talented musician, so I try to catch his band’s gigs when I can.
Kelly and I have been friends since high school, and back in 2004 we were trying to make a romantic relationship work. It was quite difficult, and ultimately it didn’t work. It was complicated and painful, and essentially, both of us were to blame, and neither of us was to blame. We can no longer be friends the way we were, but we keep in touch, and we definitely care about each other.
Leslie was my friend through Kelly, and so we’ve drifted apart. But I always thought she was cool. I have nothing bad to say about her, and I hope life is being good to her.
Yes, I believe there’s some kind of significant correlation there.
Now if you’re reading this, and you hate Blueberry Boat, and you consider us to be close friends, then I’m sure we really are close friends. Our bond must be a very strong one, one that cannot be broken even by the mighty supernatural forces of Blueberry Boat.
If you love Blueberry Boat and consider us friends, then you must understand a great deal as to why we’re in this karass together.
I have yet to play Blueberry Boat for my lady, the love of my life, even though we’ve been together for 5 years now. As far as I know, she’s never heard the album. I’ve uploaded a few Fiery Furnaces songs onto her iPod, including Blueberry Boat‘s “My Dog Was Lost But Now He’s Found,” because it’s sweet and funny and relatively accessible, and after all my lady loves dog-related things as much as I do. I think she likes that song. I’m afraid to ask her honest opinion of it. If she hated it, or hated Blueberry Boat in general, I know she’d still be the love of my life. But it might take me a day or two to cope with that.
Approx. 76 minutes, 9 seconds; 7,900 minutes, 51 seconds left on the iPod