Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Back in the glorious winter of 1997, I remember staying up to the small hours with a good friend and musical collaborator composing a song we then considered to be a mini-masterpiece. In the cocksure spirit of late adolescence, we named it 'The Sound and The Fury', after William Faulkner's great novel, one of the classics of twentieth century American fiction. I remember being dismayed when, on performing it (albeit with the slight reticence that comes with such intimate airings of new songs) to friends and relatives, many seemed perplexed. They thought that it had 'too many sections'. Actually, it only had a verse, a chorus, an instrumental bridge back to a second verse and chorus and an extended coda with silly guitar solo at the end. It was hardly Bohemian Rhapsody. Actually, I still maintain that the melody was really quite accessible. The song was probably much more conventional than I wanted it to be. It certainly had nothing on the songs on 'Blueberry Boat', the gargantuan second album from The Fiery Furnaces. If ordinary folk were baffled by our magnum opus - well, lord only knows what they will make of this.

The first album from this maverick duo was quirky - with its rudimentary percussion, peculiar fairytale lyrics and tremendous sense of fun. 'Blueberry Boat' is something else entirely. First of all, at 76 minutes, it's extremely long. Most acts would not be able to come up with this much material for a greatest hits collection. It is an audacious, confusing, rapid fire outpouring of ideas. Many of the songs seem to be composed of several sections or more. Often the songs switch style or mood without warning, as if multiple sections from different songs have been edited together to create freakish musical collages. Sometimes this cut-and-paste approach reaps tremendous rewards. Live favourite 'My Dog Was Lost But Now He's Found' is brilliant - a tremendously silly song, a wild story of searching for a lost pet with the wonderful final lines: 'I went to church on Wednesday night/The guest preacher said I bark but I don't bite/I saw my dog but he'd seen the light/My dog was lost but now he's found.' The song retains the same infectious melody throughout, a disarmingly basic vocal line that sounds almost like a nursery rhyme. Musically, it veers all over the place, with Brill building piano giving way to phased guitar and ragged drums.

More typical is the opening 'Quay Cur', which expands from Eleanor Friedberger sings of losing a locket into a vivid adventure, even incorporating a section which appears to be sung in Inuit. It's very difficult to grasp hold of, given that it extends over ten minutes, from slow, languid beginnings into insane strummings. There are so many ideas in this song alone that it's hard to know whether to give them credit for their masterful imaginative powers or to chastise them for not being more restrained and considered. This everything including the kitchen sink approach characterises the entire album. The contrast between the childlike simplicity of their melodies and the madcap ambition of their arrangements gives a peculiarly paradoxical focus. Lengthy excursions such as 'Chris Michaels' are not without appeal, but are also rabidly unpredictable. I've only listened to this album a few times at the time of writing this, but I'm far from certain that it will ever make any kind of logical sense. If you suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder, this album is ideal for you. If not, you will certainly have to persevere. It has a perverse kind of coherence in that all of it exhibits a tendency towards the insane. I have also read about the whole project being based on the idea of the blueberry boat as symbolic of American cultural imperealism. It's an appealing notion, but almost certainly over-analytical. It certainly risks sidelining the band's wacky breed of humour, which remains a significant feature here despite the loftier ambitions/pretensions of guitarist and songwriter Matthew Friedberger.

The naive innocence of Eleanor Friedberger's voice is their one major asset. It is childlike and pure, a bit like Emma Pollock from The Delgados but with an almost Dylanesque emphasis on phrasing. Given that she is also delivering hypnotic, otherworldly story-poetry, it's easy to become immersed in their singular fantasy world. Maybe there's something narrow, restrictive and retrogressive about the atmosphere they create. I've often argued that a lot of the least interesting 'indie' music seems to be characterised by a strange desire to return to the womb, and this album seems just as guilty of retreating to an infantile world as anyone else. Yet, that world is so unusual - both with the twists and turns of the music, and in the narrative compulsion that drives their lyrics, that it is difficult to resist. There's certainly not much chance of them being lazily compared with The White Stripes anymore.

A while ago I wrote somewhat cynically about the myth surrounding acoustic minstrel Devendra Banhart. A similar legend surrounds Micah P. Hinson, who was supposedly rejected by his Texan family and left homeless and peniless at the age of nineteen. Whilst Banhart has crafted an initially entrancing, but somewhat one-dimensional folk sound, Hinson has produced a debut of real quality and grandeur. Whilst his voice sounds close to that of Bill Callahan, his music moves with a cinematic sweep. Sometimes it sounds anguished, as on the unrestrained howl of 'Patience'. At its most controlled, it is both commanding and touching.

Hinson is backed on this album by The Earlies, who, possibly unwittingly, now seem to have helped Hinson surpass their own collection as best debut album of the year. They bolster the songs with thick arrangements that build from delicate subtle beginnings into beguiling, grand epics that also manage to retain a sense of vulnerability. It's unusual to find a debut album with a sound this ambitious. Typical of the approach is the closing epic 'The Day Texas Sank to the Bottom of the Sea' which, even in its quasi-orchestral glory, somehow manages to sound natural and unforced. It's one of those cyclical, repeating song, where the sound just gets bigger and more affecting each time the cycle is repeating. This album seems to be a most effective meeting of minds - Hinson brings the torch and twang, whilst the Earlies bring their forward-thinking, all-encompassing arrangements. The opening 'Close Your Eyes' grows from a languid, unhurried opening into an accelerated, dynamic military rhythm. 'The Nothing' begins with delicate and beautiful piano chords, before Hinson's vocal enters and carries it into grander territory. The emotional impact of this music is frequently striking - it captures feelings without becoming sentimental or turgid. Typical of the approach is 'Don't You' which appears in two parts and builds from a deceptively skeletal opening into a huge, powerful epic. It's hard to think of the earnest, worthy emoting of, say, Keane, ever resulting in music with this sweeping grace - yet they will no doubt remain the more successful. It's appropriate that Hinson has dubbed this 'gospel' - as there is a notable uplifting quality to even the most anguished tracks, a quality which Hinson shares with the striking desolation of Mercury Rev or Spiritualized at their broken hearted peak.

The songs themselves are romantic, occasionally frustrated, always full of palpable human emotion, and articulated in unpretentious language that occasionally hits on a disabling, stop-in-your-tracks image. In 'The Day Texas Sank..'. Hinson sings about waiting 'at the top of the trees, trying to hang myself with thoughts of you'. The approach also sometimes falters, as there are times when Hinson sounds a little too morose. Hinson is perhaps not the most poetic of singer-songwriters, but he seems more interested in texture, atmosphere and sound. He has crafted an engaging, assertive and compelling debut.

I bought 'Love Songs For Patriots', the first album from American Music Club in over ten years on the strength of an impassioned, if a little patronising, review in Uncut Magazine. Until fairly recently, I had always found the music of AMC and Mark Eitzel impenetrable and difficult. If melodies were there, they often seemed to be buried in the ether, or oversung in cloying, miserabilist mantras. I've decided to try again though - partially because it's interesting to see what new elements are brought to the table when a band reconvenes after such a long period away from duty, but also because so many people seem to think that they were/are a band worth investing considerable energy in. I must concede that this new album does go some way in convincing me of their merit.

Immediately, the sound and production seem to be much more considered than their late eighties/early nineties work. This dynamic, coiling, twisting sound more than matches the intensity and energy of Mark Eitzel's singing. The opening track 'Ladies and Gentlemen' seems like a radical statement of intent. It bristles with passion and fury, with a driving fuzz bass line at its core pitted against jazzy rhythms and asymmetric piano chords. It sounds like the band is imploding, albeit in a remarkable way. Further evidence of this comes with the barely controlled snarl of 'Patriot's Heart', possibly inspired by the trauma and misdirected energies of post-9/11 America. It works by cumulative effect, with its rolling, repetetive cycles becoming increasingly devastating. In between the two is a much more conventional piece, the delicately rustling 'Another Morning', effectively underpinned by sustained synth effects. In fact, it's worth pointing out that the addition of new recruit Marc Capelle on a vast array of keyboard instruments has considerably bolstered the band's sound.

Despite the ambitious arrangements and atmospherics, Eitzel's voice remains the main focus, and it's worth noting the variety of his tone and sound. Whilst some rock singers, say, Thom Yorke, have carved a niche for themselves with singularly distinctive voices, it's sometimes hard to believe that it's Eitzel singing on every track here. Sometimes he is furious and relentless, as on the aforementioned 'Patriot's Heart', at others he is wistful and whispery. More often than not here, he manages to remould his vocal to suit the mood of the song, which is a particularly impressive quality. His skill with a twisted lyric has remained intact, despite the rather unfocused nature of his solo career thus far. Perhaps reuniting with his old band has reinvigorated him. When the results are as stunning as closing track 'The Devil Needs You' with its mysterious and elusive instrumental coda, it's a timely reminder that not all reunions have to be a matter of simply going through the motions.

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