Choir Masters

The Fiery Furnaces, with special guest— their grandmother.

Long before I realized the only musical talent I had was describing it, I used to dream up master plans for the band I intended to start. We would be called the Shards, and in detail, I would plot our trajectory: The first album would have X number of songs and be wry and somewhat gawky; then the second would be cut from a similar mold but swing harder, be louder, more raw; then we'd release an EP, and follow that with a triple album that encompassed every style we could write a song in; after that would be the masterpiece that consolidated it all and sealed our place in rock history. Our popularity would grow steadily but quickly throughout, and, of course, the critics would adore us. God help me, I even predicted my future albums' respective placements in the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll—the surest sign of all that I had no business writing songs instead of criticism.

So when I first read Matthew Friedberger tell Pitchfork two Junes ago that his and his sister Eleanor's band, the Fiery Furnaces, had already planned the follow-up to their then just-out Blueberry Boat, I began wondering whether he'd thought the same way before the band had formed. It turns out he didn't. "You just want to take as many liberties as you can," he says while maneuvering the Furnaces' tour vehicle around a detour on his way to Athens, Ga., where they'll begin their fall tour in advance of the band's fourth album, Rehearsing My Choir. "Either make up or plan out or pretend that you've made up or planned out as many records as you can, because if you talk about them, then maybe somebody will give you money to make them, is my attitude. The plan maybe makes you do something—you don't have to stick to the particular plan."

Not sticking to plan is what the Fiery Furnaces are good at. And when the Furnaces' first album, 2003's Gallowsbird's Bark, was issued, the Friedbergers' sibling status and the album's bent bluesiness earned erroneous White Stripes comparisons, which the following year's Blueberry Boat definitively sunk. Sounding something like what might have happened if Bob Dylan and the Band had set out to record The Basement Tapes and come up with Tales From Topographic Oceans instead, Blueberry Boat strung together indelible tunelets in deliberately random order for seven, eight, 10 minutes at a time. This tended to either enchant or infuriate listeners—Spin dumped a C- on it, while the Web mag Stylus named it the best album of 2004.

Both of them had a point. Even if, like me, you admired it immediately, Blueberry Boat doesn't just take work to figure out, it's actively difficult, and it wasn't until Douglas Wolk's appreciation of "Chris Michaels" in a Smallmouth column that I began to get a grip on the thing. Then I discovered the album's greatest surprise: Once you adjust to the willful twists and turns of an album that explicitly challenges pop fans' listening patterns, Blueberry Boat makes smashing background music.

So does Rehearsing My Choir, which Rough Trade issues Oct. 25, and this might actually be more surprising. Rehearsing My Choir is one of the two albums Matthew told Pitchfork the Furnaces had already mapped out, and it earned the nickname "the Grandmother Album" long before it was even recorded. The album stars Olga Sarantos, Matthew and Eleanor's (you guessed it) grandmother, and its songs are built around her reminiscences of her Chicago youth, with Eleanor taking the role of the younger Olga. (The Friedbergers grew up in Chicago; they currently live in Brooklyn.) Choir bears less resemblance to a "rock" album, even a fractured one like its predecessor, than the kind of records that used to be sold with storybooks, where a ping! prompted you to turn the page—appropriate given the kind of tall tales that pervade Choir.

"That's what her personality's like," Matthew says of Sarantos. "She's goofy; she's a ham. The whole record is supposed to be the tone of her personality." Still, even given the record's blend of factual and fantastical, Sarantos kept a watchful eye on specifics. "She made me change a line," says Matthew. "I wrote something I thought was idiomatic: 'One man I couldn't get along with.' She said, 'Look, that's ending a sentence with a preposition. You don't want me to do that, do you?' I said, 'No, if you wouldn't say that.'"

Sarantos requested another change in a lyric about a physician who seems to have escaped from a nightmarish Bizarro World version of Candyland. "Dr. Peter Pane was an actual guy, and he did have a doughnut factory with his brother," says Matthew. "But the other stuff [in the song] isn't true. She said, 'His factory was on the north side, it wasn't on the south side.' I said, 'Well, it's better if it's on the south side, because then it's an inversion of his real doughnut factory, because it's his fantasy doughnut factory.' And she was happy with that excuse for [it] being wrong."

The Fiery Furnaces play Neumo's at 8 p.m. Mon., Oct. 3. $15 adv.

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