You have to admit, not every band would make a concept album about their grandmother's life. But the Fiery Furnaces do that for their grandmother, octogenarian Olga Sarantos. And with granny's own help, too.
Their third full-length album, "Rehearsing My Choir," is a truly weird album full of reminiscences of Sarantos' life and thoughts. It's not musical in the usual sense.... so if you want to enjoy it, don't think of it as music. Think of it as an offbeat biographical piece of musical theatre.
It opens with a relentless piano melody, with Sarantos herself speaking in a smooth, deep voice about fudge, hammers, thumbtacks, lost loves and other offbeat stuff. Her granddaughter Eleanor Friedberger dips in occasionally, singing behind her grandmother's spoken word monologue.
This continues throughout the album, with Eleanor singing sweetly behind Olga's deep vocals, and sometimes talking for herself. "Once upon a time, there were two Kevins..."/"You mean two jerks!" they interrupt each other, before Eleanor starts off on a sweet ditty about her ex-boyfriends.
"Rehearsing My Choir" is probably the Furnaces' weakest work thus far, with its jumps in time and location. And if you don't know that it's all about, it will be completely confusing. And not in an fun indiepop-opera manner either.
Fortunately for Furnaces fans, even the weakest of their music is still pretty dang good. It's full of bright, affectionate, humorous anecdotes and a warm-hearted look on a very cool-sounding lady's life. The brother-sister duo (and Olga) manage to maintain a level of weirdness on par with their prior work.
In the lyrics, Olga's life is given a true Furnaces-style makeover, sort of a nightmare poetry spin. This IS the band that wrote a whole song about a dog taking a religious turn. "Zapped by the zombie! Zapped by the zombie!/Zapped by the zombie in the two-door Dodge/Twice baked brioche and Danish pastry pockets/And lock it's two-door Dodge," Olga and Eleanor sing, after an extended noodling session. Gypsies, night schools, weddings, boyfriends and family love are all woven into the songs.
And they also maintain the musical peculiarities, with sprawling melodies that spill over with synth, organ, piano, and splatterings of electric guitar, Latin flavour, computer blips and bursts of electric guitar. It's Jackson Pollock music. It's by no means their tightest work, but it is plenty of fun. Even if you don't listen to the vocals, the music is worth it alone.
While "Rehearsing My Choir" is not the tightest work the Fiery Furnaces have done, the offbeat melodies and quirky lyrics prove that they still have what it takes.