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"Blueberry Boat"  The Fiery Furnaces  Release date: 2004  Label: Rough Trade

A lot of bands these days seem to have taken the old curse of the "difficult second album" to heart. The old jokes about ludicrously excessive, self-indulgent monster records seem to have left a lot of bands determined to keep things real with sophomore efforts that tighten up the original sound and develop only cautiously. This is great of course; people are too impatient with their bands and there's no need for anyone to rush. Bands should develop at their own pace, but then it's still a nice surprise when something jumps up out of the bushes and blows your hat off.

Of course, anyone who knows anything about The Fiery Furnaces knows that their own particular pace is lightning speed, so it should come as no surprise to learn that "Blueberry Boat" is a ludicrously excessive, self-indulgent monster record. Thirteen tracks long, but each track in the six-to-ten minute range and containing three or four different songs worth of melodies and ideas spread across various movements. With Brian Wilson having recently dusted off his old "Smile" manuscripts, this is an interesting counterpoint. Sharing with Wilson's opus its incomprehensible, meandering narratives, "Blueberry Boat" does so in a resolutely lo-fi mode, with its cacaphony of antique sounding synths, jangling pianos and Matthew and Eleanor's vocals playing back and forth, tag-team style. The mixture of rawness and ambition is exhilarating, as the album takes you on a wild trip involving boats, more boats, pirates, lost dogs, murder, Spain, baseball, and Eleanor's trusty first tambourine (maybe different to the one she got at the Millenium Dome on their last album).

Another way that it differs from other such ambitious works of symphonic rock excess is the way that rather than every piece having a firm place in the narrative, all the multifarious parts of the picture here are infinitely interchangeable, and could be rearranged at will to create ever more interesting shapes and sounds. Take the magnificent "Chief Inspector Blancheflower", where three seperate songs, each with their own unique narrative, are linked together loosely by Matthew and Eleanor's spoken word ellipses. Part one, in which a young Matthew dreams of becoming a typewriter mender but is defeated by his poor grades, results in a decision to join the police, ushering in Eleanor's investigation into foul play in Dumbarton. However, rather than joining the force, he could just as easily have gone off to sea, leading into the title track's oriental nautical adventures and creating a totally different suite out of many of the same basic components.

The flexibility of the arrangement undoubtedly results in all manner of fun when performed live, but even fixed in place on the album, it's compelling stuff and another addition to the albums of the year. Do yourself a favour and get your hands on this album now. -Ian Martin, Oct.20.04.

The Fiery Furnaces [Blueberry Boat] 2004 Blueberry Boat

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