Rock siblings aren’t like the rest of us. Their harmonies can blend almost incestuously, as though locking away family mysteries in a mesh of notes. Though Matt Friedberger mostly leaves the singing to his sister, Eleanor, the duo codes its art pop in a private language only the genetically linked share. The Fiery Furnaces’ debut, Gallowsbird’s Bark, sutured a garage-rock backbone to pop ectoplasm reminiscent of Brian Eno’s spacey ’70s miniatures, creating a delight so familiar it seemed almost fathomable. Their 2004 follow-up, Blueberry Boat, demanded not just full attention but utter devotion. Critics compared its mangled narratives and mingled tunelets with a DJ master mix or Brian Wilson’s Smile. Online obsessives tricked themselves into believing they could dissect its riddles.
The fact that the Friedbergers have added a third family member to the band hardly suggests a move toward accessibility. But on Rehearsing My Choir, their grandmother, Olga Sarantos, grounds the Furnaces’ formal play in concrete pathos. In her spoken reminiscences, whimsy becomes magic realism. When Sarantos’ and Eleanor’s phrases burble to the surface, they’re often aphoristic (“In Cicero / Never stand at a window”) or so precisely descriptive they’re surreal (“They’re both wearing vintage throwback 45-dollar 1983 White Sox hats”). Sarantos’ cracked bellow echoes Captain Beefheart’s absurdist blues. Perspectives shift with the fluidity of the Firesign Theatre’s existential radio plays. Foreground and background blur like the ambient murmur of avant-gardist Robert Ashley. And the keyboard cheese throughout betrays the influence of ’70s-era Doctor Who‘s incidental music.
At the album’s heart, though, is a clash between two resonant voices. Eleanor’s is stately, Olga’s is stagy, and the latter’s shameless hamming shows up the former’s youthful self-consciousness. Whether Eleanor echoes her grandmother or provides a less mature counterpoint, her gravity melds with Sarantos’ gusto for a dissonance that’s never entirely discordant. And as the older woman recites a litany of breakups and missed opportunities that the younger strives to comprehend, the buried message of pop music’s many harmonizing clans is laid bare: Family secrets are no less mysterious once made public.
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