Short on continuity but endlessly imaginative, showily dramatic, full of impassioned speeches and level-headed appreciation of danger, decked out in brilliantly colored costumes and elaborately constructed cardboard props, Blueberry Boat
might remind you of a particularly creative child's first play. Rock music's second most famous brother/sister duo trade sung and spoken monologues in songs that skip over geographies and time periods, eschew linear logic and look danger level-headedly in the eye. It's a Lemony Snicket-ish kind of world they inhabit, where terrible events are recorded without much fuss. For example, in "Spaniolated", Eleanor gets stuffed in the hold of a rusty trawler and forced to eat pills to prevent her getting taller, and the Blueberry Boat of the title track goes to the bottom with nothing more than a few discordant piano chords to mourn its passing.
Blueberry Boat is not for the faint of attention span, opening as it does with the ten-minute epic "Quay Cur" and including a whopping five tracks at or over the eight-minute mark. Several of these mini-operas -- "Chris Michaels", "Mason City" and, especially, "Inspector Blancheflower" -- are actually a series of loosely connected musical and lyrical ideas rather than unitary tracks, making it, I think, even harder to get a grip on them. Add to that the initial confusion of a musical style that is so stuffed with ideas and variations and timbers -- the central "Now I'll never, never, never feel like I'm safe again" melody in "Quay Cur" is repeated in every imaginable variety of keyboard, synthesizer, guitar and vocal -- and you can see why Blueberry Boat does not reward casual attention. I was five listens in before I could hear any of the songs internally, without the record on, and that's a lot. And yet, paradoxically, tucked into the difficulty and in-jokes and twisted lyrics are some of the most uplifting pop melodies you'll hear anywhere these days. If you look at "Chris Michaels" as a mini-opera, as the Fiery Furnaces encourage you do to, the sweeping chorus becomes the aria everyone can whistle on the way home, while the beat poet, spoke-sung interludes are the connective narrative.
Of the shorter songs, "Straight Street" works the best for me, bursting through the door with a cacophony of guitars before subsiding into the more standard (for this album) piano and martial chant of Eleanor Friedberger. Like much of Gallowsbird's Bark, this track has a lot of conceptual "here's where the guitar goes" breaks, which are almost cartoonishly exuberant in their winks and nods to '60s musical styles. However, there are also quiet piano sections and burly synthetic riffs that underline the murky plot developments. It's a musical style that feels both calculated and spontaneous, like an old-time piano player keeping time with a silent film.
Still it's the giant, ambitious mock-epics that define the album: the nautically linked "Quay Cur" and "Blueberry Boat", the triumphantly melodic "Chris Michaels" and the coolly tranquil, girl-group sweet "Mason City". My favorite of all of these turns out to be "Inspector Blancheflower", a Rubik's Cube of a song that unfolds in three completely unrelated parts. In the first, we meet a moderately handicapped individual trying with no success to fit into the workplace. Sung by Matt Friedberger, it's a touching portrait of a person trying hard, intermittently motivated by "tickets, tangibles, chips and stars", but also distracted by the grass. The second part, sung by Eleanor, switches scenes completely, following a murderous farmer whose victims include a wife, a young son and a lord. (Best line: "Then I shared a local cider / with the local fratricide"). There's a final, completely unrelated segment, which has to do with two brothers vying for the affections of "Jenny" (no relation) and Matt and Eleanor sparring in dialog, just as they have done so successfully in all their press interviews.
This is a big, sprawling, difficult but rewarding album, from a band whose reach exceeds its grasp, but only by a little. Give it a while to cook.