Issue #71: Rehearsing My Choir by The Fiery Furnaces

June 26, 2017

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Rehearsing My Choir by The Fiery Furnaces
Released On October 24, 2005
Released By Rough Trade Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Melissa Koch

Art-rock brother-sister duo The Fiery Furnaces produced so many records that are worth revisting, but 2005’s Rehearsing My Choir has such a maligned history that I don’t think I could convince my friends to listen to it if it weren’t for Off Your Radar. Pitchfork, who gave the Furnaces’ two previous records the coveted Best New Music designation, rated it a 4.0 and called it “a magnificent failure.” Pop Matters gave it 2 stars out of 10 and said the band had “gone too far.” I believe Rehearsing My Choir soiled critics’ opinion of the band, who never recovered to the buzzy heights of Blueberry Boat, released just a year before, even though 2007’s Widow City might be the best thing they ever did. I don’t know if I even consider RMC a “good” or “listenable” record — and I own the experimental 51-track live album Remember on vinyl — but I do think it’s incredibly important, and the time has come to take an honest look at its artistic merits and failures.

RMC is a novel-cum-opera detailing the life of Olga Sarantos, the Friedbergers’ grandmother and main vocalist on the album. The story, which takes place at various times in Chicago, describes the history of Olga’s relationship with her husband, who we learn in closer “Does It Remind You Of When?” is no longer living. The whole thing is touching and sad and beautiful. But weird. This is not “Tropical Ice-Land, Part II.” This is Olga singing “la la la” super slowly and heartbreakingly while Matthew plays a staccato keyboard. This is Olga and Eleanor having what seems like a conversation, but it’s actually an older and younger version of Olga recounting different versions the same story.

Olga’s voice is deep and immediately jarring because part of it is unfamiliar to us. We have really fucked up ideas about age in America. Old people make us uncomfortable, and we rarely pay attention to what they have to say unless they are old men like Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen, pondering death and the afterlife. But how often do we hear the voice of an 80+ year old woman sharing her personal history on record—never? Was Olga’s voice the reason for the poor critical reviews? As a woman, I am going to be Olga one day, but will people listen to me?

RMC has remained a favorite of the Furnaces’ superfans, as it showcases everything we like about the band: stories about people, Eleanor’s beautiful alto, lyrics that sound like ’60s poetry, funny wordplay, Matthew’s nickelodeon-esque keyboard melodies that quickly move to guitar riffs. It’s pretentious, sure, but hey, the acclaimed Blueberry Boat opened with a ten-minute-long song.

I feel particularly connected to RMC because my family is also from Chicago and I recognize the places Olga and Eleanor describe (Forest Park! Trader Vic’s!). My mother and aunt both worked on the railroad mentioned in “We Wrote Letters Everyday” and “The Garfield El” (“Faster, hammers! / We’re almost there”). I can see myself having similar conversations to Olga and Eleanor with my now-deceased maternal grandmother, whose strong nose and high, Eastern Europe-via-Chicago voice are present in every lyric.

While the Fiery Furnaces may have created other music that has had a more lasting impression on me, Rehearsing My Choir‘s sense of time and place functions as a bridge between my past and my future.

Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ

Eleanor Friedberger and Olga Sarantos, a few months before the latter’s death in 2007.

Concept albums can be a gamble: a single unifying theme to tie a collection of songs together can take an album from good to great, but if the narrative is too tightly interlaced throughout, there’s the risk of alienating audiences. For some artists though, isn’t that the goal? To create art that challenges and pushes boundaries? Rehearsing My Choir by The Fiery Furnaces is one such album and it is not meant to be listened to casually. As a concept album detailing the life of the Friedberger’s grandmother, this is a dense album and it can’t be properly unpacked if it’s simply used as background noise. Oftentimes it feels like the band has taken the concept of a concept album and stretched it to its limits. There’s a reason why, upon the album’s release, reviewers compared Rehearsing My Way to the Great American Novel, and that reason is because it essentially is one. Nearly every single aspect of the album, from the repeated piano motifs to utilization of spoken word to the drastic change up of instrumentation mid-song, makes the stories being told the focus. This is a fully realized body of work and should be treated to as such without breaking it down into individual songs, much like how you wouldn’t dissect a novel chapter by chapter. During my first listen (which, by the way, 4:30am after working a night shift is not necessarily the best time to listen to an album like this one), I felt lost without having the lyrics, or at least some kind of background information about the album’s history, and was very similar to the first time I read Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange without the Nasdat glossary readily available or Lolita without any annotations, or even attempting to read Catch-22 when I was 14. Even now that I’ve listened to it a handful of times, I’m still not 100% sure I’ve caught everything that’s going on in these songs — I didn’t even realize until my third listen that a majority of the narration was performed by Olga Sarantos, the album’s subject, herself. It’s that kind of layering that makes this album so interesting: The Fiery Furnaces not only recorded an album about their grandmother, they got their grandmother to narrate said album. Professors could probably teach a unit or two on albums like Rehearsing My Choir and even after the course is finished some students would need to revisit the album on their own to fully understand everything (on a similar note, I feel like that at any moment my writing might begin to resemble a book report more than a reaction to music). I can’t say that I’ll be adding Rehearsing My Choir to my regular listening rotation, because it’s not a light listen for sure, but for an album with such a steep listening curve, it is a lot fun to talk and think about. It’s presented in one medium, but really ought to be analyzed as if it were another, and any kind of art that can transcend boundaries like that deserves to be observed and discussed.

Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie

I remember reading at some point (quick disclaimer: I can’t find this online now, so consider the anecdote apocryphal at best) that Coldplay would intentionally strip all the proper nouns out of their lyrics in order to make them more widely applicable. This isn’t a knock on Coldplay; the point — well, a point, at least — of pop music is to get as many people as possible to identify with what you’re creating. But if you imagine that lyrical goal as one end of a spectrum, Rehearsing My Choir would be at the opposite end, elevating the personal. The singular. The idiosyncratic. This idea hit me while I was listening to “Forty-Eight Twenty-Three Twenty-Second Street,” when narrator Olga Sarantos mentions the name of the donkey her aunt rode up the Taygetus mountains: David. I started asking myself, “Did I really need to know the donkey’s name was David? Does that tiny detail connect to some greater meaning or theme?” Normally I’d want the answer to be yes, but this album isn’t normal. Given the two narrative voices and the way the story jumps around in time (the album’s Wikipedia page can tell you which songs are set in which decade), it seems like the big picture isn’t the point. We all live lives that are unfathomably packed with detail, and I think what Rehearsing My Choir does best is show that those details matter — not because they’re part of some tidy, all-encompassing truth, but because they’re the building blocks of our daily lives. Without them, we don’t exist. Makes me wish I could go back and ask my late grandmothers if they rode up any mountains.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

My daughters have never thought it was weird or gross for women to marry women. After the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, we told the girls, and my youngest (4 at the time) promptly asked me to marry her. Thanksgiving that year was hosted by the two beaming brides in mini-veils, dancing to Louis Armstrong, with wedding cake, not pecan pie, for dessert. When I told them that I was going to remarry and asked if they would be upset if I changed my last name, rippling the linguistic reflection between us, they gave me crazy eyes over their Pokémon cards and replied, “You’re still our mama, right? It’s just a name.” Listening to The Fiery Furnaces this week, I oscillated between a peaceful sinking into emotional oblivion and a dread of recommending this to others. I haven’t verified this, but I would bet my original pressing of Sticky Fingers that someone branded this a “difficult” record. Difficult isn’t right. Fragmented… disjointed… uneven… maybe. But not without beautiful, emotional, authentic added on. How can I tell you what to expect? That this record sounds like carousel music with a Spanish and Oriental influence, with folksy plinky piano and futuristic electronica? Do you want to listen to an elderly woman storytelling mingled with her grandson and granddaughter singing her life like a dirge sometimes, like a celebration sometimes? What if I name drop Eleanor Friedburger, the featured granddaughter — does it get some clout now? There is no way to recommend this album without Picasso; you have to think like a child to enjoy it. This record is only difficult if you have little boxes you think music should fit into, rows of genres, lists of qualifications that make it like this band or that artist so you can recognize it better. Think like a child — leave behind the preconceptions of indie rock or electronica or folk — and experience the album, take it for what it is, and float through it happy one time, nostalgic another, disturbed or spooked or optimistic at others. Take it and mix it with your life at the moment of listening and let it be what it is.

Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite

The Friedberger siblings deftly soundtrack their grandmother’s story with gorgeous melodies, using instrumentation as germane as it is intriguing.

The Fiery Furnaces have long been a group that received extensive discussion in the sort of indie music circles some might label “hipster” — you know, Pitchfork and places like that, plus tons of message boards and Facebook groups frequented by bespectacled graduate students. As someone who brushes up against that world due to my background as a semi-professional music journalist, I’ve been hearing about this band for years and years. However, what I heard about them always made them sound so inconsistent, experimental, and wildly difficult to pin down that I was never all that interested in actually listening to their music. No description was more off-putting than the one of their fourth album, Rehearsing My Choir. I figured that even if I would be able to get into this band’s music, a concept album in which the siblings at the heart of the group recruited their 80-year-old grandmother to sing and write lyrics would not be the place to start. I kind of wish I’d hunted down, say, Gallowsbird’s Bark or Bitter Tea before now, though, because OYR has now required me to start here. And boy, has it been a difficult start. There are some intriguing aspects to Rehearsing My Choir, for sure — the narratives within the lyrics are far more interesting and grounded in a sincere, multi-faceted humanity than I’d ever expected from anyone’s 80 year old grandmother. Olga Sarantos seems like she might really have been a young person once, a fact about themselves that most grandmothers, in my experience, take great pains to hide. Musically speaking, there are some catchy tunes here — the samba-like Latin flair of “Forty-Eight Twenty-Three Twenty-Second Street” stayed stuck in my head for quite a while. And when Fiery Furnaces’ normal singer, Sarantos’ granddaughter Eleanor Friedberger, takes the vocal lead, the strange structural and instrumental choices brother Matthew is making in the music can mesh quite well with her quietly pretty singing. Most of the time, though, Sarantos is taking the lead vocal. Even when the lines rhyme in standard lyric form, or repeat as a refrain, she speaks rather than sings them. It’s as if this octogenarian grandmother is doing her best Lou Reed interpretation with such perfect deadpan cool that you’re not sure if you’re supposed to laugh or what. That’s probably a pretty common reaction to this album as a whole, and therefore, I think the best way to find some worthwhile elements to take away is to stop thinking of it as music in any conventional sense. Treat this album as conceptual art with a music-based structure; focus on the honestly quite intriguing storylines that unspool from Sarantos’ narrations, and the layers added through Eleanor Friedberger’s occasionally sung responses. Treating it in this fashion is no more likely to encourage repeat listens than treating it as a normal piece of music will, but it’s likely to be a far less off-putting experience.

Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground

Rehearsing My Choir is an art project. It’s a collage of sound — instruments and voices telling a story all at once. It’s like a trance version of a Public Enemy album, just without all the James Brown loops. It’s like the Talking Heads, but far more detailed in the storytelling (obviously, since the entire album is one long story arch). I don’t think I’m going out on a limb in saying that this could possibly be David Lynch’s favorite album of all time. My apologies for all the comparisons, but how do you explain this brilliant project to someone that’s never heard it? It’s like Mulholland Drive set to music. All of the tracks are very descriptive accounts of one woman’s life, but there is one departure in “Slavin Away,” which is the album’s most moving moment. While there are still bits of the plain voiceover narration, “Slavin’ Away” is a dynamic musical array of instrumentation and heartfelt lyrics. Hands down, my favorite track on the project. Another moment that struck me as quite resourceful was the recreation of “construction noise” using screeching guitars played over an otherwise peaceful melody of “Does It Remind You Of When?Rehearsing My Choir isn’t just an album, it’s an audio experience.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

This album is weird, but just saying it’s weird doesn’t do it justice. Imagine going to see a play you’ve never heard of and while you’re busy losing yourself in a beautiful piece of piano in the soundtrack, you remember leaving your drink unattended at the bar for just a second. Just as you remember that though, your head gets heavy and you find your chair is starting to spin like you’re on a carnival tilt-a-whirl. Speed up, slow down; over and over — this album is an epic journey starring what feels like the disembodied voices of extended family members recanting memories over what was probably laced coffee. Although I don’t recommend listening to this album out of sequence, my favourite track is “The Wayward Granddaughter,” which is the epic story of two Kevins. The lyrics in this song are delivered candidly by a young woman and her Grandmother, and its story instantly grabbed me because of its very relatable content and the musical cacophony that ensued. After this track, I was hooked on the rest of the record and its amazing story, which I don’t want to give away too much of because the album truly does it better. What I will say is that Eleanor Friedberger’s vocals are calming amidst the chaos of spacey music that swells intermediately throughout the album. Her delivery of the story is reminiscent of the New York City’s iconic beat poets of Greenwich Village, ones surely drinking from that laced coffee. And if you’ve ever been curious about recreational drug use, but maybe don’t have the nerve, I recommend you give this album a try. Trust me when I say Rehearsing My Choir is a much more manageable addiction.

Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making

Six albums over seven years (plus touring for all). That is a notable feat to say the least, for a brother-sister duo who existed as The Fiery Furnaces from under the ever-ubiquitous bio label of “indie band from Brooklyn.” Right away, the clock time of a nearly full hour seemed daunting. Very few albums make it to that time mark and still manage to leave a full-bodied impression, as opposed to one that screams, “60% of this was what we bled, sweat and cried over. The rest is filler that we like but is clearly less committed material” (See also: many albums of the last five to eight years that have 16-20 tracks and aren’t deluxe releases. That at least is understandable to an extent.) Now, Rehearsing My Choir doesn’t actually reach the teens in terms of track quantity but, there are certainly plenty of implications to be drawn when each, minus just one, of the 11 tracks that are present, exceed four minutes in length. Radio play was definitely not made a priority with the music just from that alone. Beyond that kind of logistic detail however, the music itself is beating to its own drum — even within the loose lines of what defined early 2000s indie. Despite the massive amount of quirkiness earned with its smorgasbord of sounds — from the honky tonk/old player-style piano heard on opening track “The Garfield El,” and on other tracks throughout, to the tiny droplet-like synthesizer sounds splashed across the midway track, “Guns Under The Counter” — and the duo narrating (note I specifically didn’t say singing) unpredictable tales with atypical vocabulary (“Put on corduroy knickers that I got from the coal shoveling’ kid / And hitchhiked in a rickety old ford / Hitchhiked in a rattly old norton side car”), Rehearsing My Choir is a highly deceptive body of work. These surface-level qualities of the tracks again, throw around implications. The sonically lighter fare and the offbeat lyrics translate to a casual listening experience, right? Wrong! Well, at least according to my own experience. The stories aren’t all one-pass digestives and the sheer amount of words packed into telling the stories of the tracks demands attention and focus that I would say is like a lyrical counterpart to the kind of concentration I have to give progressive rock band, The Dear Hunter, for its instrumental density. The end result and bottom line is a playful album on the outside and heavy album on the inside, which when paired together, makes Rehearsing My Choir just intriguing enough overall, to acquire that necessary focus from me to get through the whole hour long project.

Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier

Live shot courtesy of Melissa Koch, taken in 2009 at Fry’s Spring Beach Club in Charlottesville, VA.

About ten or so years ago, I started a project. I was going to read all the Pulitzers for Best Fiction from the year of my birth forward (I simultaneously began similar projects for Best Picture and Album Of The Year winners). Daunting to say the least, I’m proud to say I’m about two-thirds of the way to being fully caught up, so the end is in sight! With that in mind, this album feels like a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. It is incredibly enjoyable, but also incredibly demanding. But this is in no way a complaint — the world needs challenging, rich albums like this one. I felt engaged in the lives of the narrators. There was a satisfying flourish at the climax (“Rehearsing My Choir“) and the denouement (“Does It Remind You Of When?“) was hopeful but also made me think about my own mortality. Actually, now that I think of it, this album also reminded me of the movie A League Of Their Own (one of my all-time favorites) in the structure of an older woman thinking back to the victories and struggles of when she was younger and then we, the audience, return to her and we see/hear that she has had a happy life in the interim but now she’s old and those youthful days, trying though they may have been, are behind her. What I’m saying is, I enjoyed this album, with all its complexity and oddity, very very much. My favorite musical moment was in “Does It Remind You Of When?” when Olga Sarantos says “And there’s not even an organ / I have to play on some broken upright piano” and as she says this, the instrumentation switches appropriately from organ to what I can only assume is a suitably broken upright piano. “Listen to those low notes”, she says, “What a joke.”

James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts

I lost track of Fiery Furnaces very early in their career, turned off by Matthew Friedberger’s kitchen-sink approach to both songwriting and production and less captivated by sister Eleanor’s voice than I suspected I was supposed to be. So I was unaware of Rehearsing My Choir until now. After several listens, my conclusion is that I admire the album more for the questions it provokes than as an actual listening experience, despite the occasional pretty passage. For example: When is personal art too personal? How little inevitability can you leave in your music before it ceases to be musical? Can you assume a deeper relationship with your fans than really exists? Are there some instruments that shouldn’t be on the same song? Some of the questions are directed to myself: Should I be more interested in the life of Olga Sarantos, the Friedberger’s grandmother, whose voice is heard throughout the album? Am I wrong for thinking grandma’s voice sometimes sounds a little like Frank Zappa? All of this is to say that when you think you’ve heard it all, put on this album. The Book of Ecclesiastes contains the commonly quoted aphorism: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” I would say this album is as spirited a salvo as has been launched against that world-weary attitude as the most genre-busting radical artwork you can think of — and then some. If you want to dip a toe in, start with “The Wayward Granddaughter,” which has a touch of art-disco and is probably the most user-friendly track here. Whether you go for full immersion from there is up to you.

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

Rehearsing My Choir is, above everything, a strong record and one full of rewarding and enlightening moments, both musically and lyrically. But it’s ultimately a record that defies definition, something many found out first-hand which lead to the polarizing reputation it has earned. The record has more in common with novellas and radio theater than records themselves, even if you do limit the scope to concept albums and the avant-garde, and that hinders the ability of fans and critics to effectively talk about and examine it. Because of that, I won’t say that the harsh reviews this record received were unfair (even if they were slightly hypocritical) because the larger problem was that both fans and publications tried to make this fit within the confines of regular music critique, even though it so obviously didn’t and couldn’t. Ideally, this album’s appeal is much-more rooted in the philosophy that everyone has a story, which inherently is interesting in its own way. Is a random person’s life more interesting than say Carole King’s? Who knows? But even if it wasn’t, it still doesn’t diminish the fact that their own story is inherently interesting. It reminds me a bit of a record by Drew Gibson back in 2015 entitled 1532 which revolves around Gibson examining family letters and mementos while dealing with the grief of his father’s passing. These weren’t ground-breaking scientists or fearless activists — they were just people… with a story. Gibson approached this in a similar, non-linear style, but still framed it all within traditional songwriting. Here, the Friedbergers went the opposite direction, letting the conversation go unguided, almost like someone recounting their own life in a casual conversation, revealing things as they fit the topic rather than the timeline. One story here leads to the memory of another, even if it they may be decades apart. The music follows this direction too, completely non-liner and spasmodic at times, and while the shift from old-timey instrumentation to disco grooves and sci-fi sound effects can be jarring, it undoubtedly provides context and depth to many of the stories on the record, and gives Olga Sarantos a large platform to unravel the story of her life to anyone willing to listen. And trust me — her story is interesting, just like your own grandparents and everyone else you encounter. All we have to do is listen to find out.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
Creator by The Lemonheads
Chosen By Drew Necci

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Erin Calvert, Laura Burroughs, Catherine Dempsey, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Dustin Gates, Carly Green, Kira Grunenberg, Davy Jones, Matt Klimas, Melissa Koch, David Munro, Drew Necci, & Jeremy Shatan

Logo By Matt Klimas


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