27 September 2005

the fiery furnaces - "we wrote letters every day" (from the rehearsing my choir lp, available for pre-order here.)

in brief : well, i bet your grandmother never made an album.

i wanted to like blueberry boat more than i did. it contained some good things and, going forward, i hoped the band might edit and refine their sound somewhat.

good news: rehearsing my choir is eighteen minutes shorter. and, and, and ...

well, the good news ends there. this, as you might have heard, is the grandmother album. matthew cites jody beth rosen as having said that grandma's voice is "a bit like elaine stritch crossed with a carnival barker." this is almost unbearably accurate, not only in the sound of her voice, but its staginess as well.

there are two questions i asked myself before listening to the record: would i like this album if this were my grandmother? (or would i like this album if grandma had a better voice? could music and melody compensate for vocals? short answers to both were "yes"; long answers to follow.

my paternal grandmother had a v. nice voice--in fact, i still have recordings of her singing to me when i was a baby. (my maternal grandmother has had several strokes; communication is a sore spot for her, and was, i'd argue, before all of that.) records w/ parents (or grandparents) on them don't necessarily have to suck; common's "pop's rap" series comes to mind, as does gloria carter's cameo on jay-z's "december 4th." what these two have in spades is warmth, which, coming from the family i do, appeals to me. i come from a family of storytellers, people who have galvanizing presences. on rehearsing my choir, i sense so little chemistry that the old questions of kinship arise, not about eleanor & matt's relationship to one another, but whether olga sarantos is really their grandmother. it's all v. much like an off-broadway production of someone's life, and olga often sounds like she's receiving her lyrics from a producer over an earpiece, as if this all were breaking news.

if olga were my grandmother, then, yes, i'd appreciate this album, but only b/c i'd be in on the proceedings. i'd know the real stories behind the songs; i'd have v. real memories attached to all of it. since that's not the case, i feel at a remove from what's going on and, to get to the second question, the music infrequently allows me to feel involved. it's not dissimilar to blueberry boat, but it also has a distinct future bible heroes-feel at times and the whole thing--music and concept--reminds me of nothing so much as the 7" ep that came w/ the beach boys' holland. it featured, david leaf writes,
an autobiographical fairy tale, composed and written primarily by brian and narrated by jack rieley. if you are at all interested in brian's personal psychodrama, you should hear the whole thing. titled 'mt. vernon & fairway' (named for the intersection where the love family grew up), it's an allegory for brian's creative life.
and, like rehearsing my choir, it's heavy on synths and keyboards ... and is the reason, along w/ "kokomo," that disc 4 of the boxed set is the one i listen to least.

i post "we wrote letters every day" not b/c it's entirely successful, but there is a moment when the mask drops; tellingly, it is instrumental. "we wrote letters every day," olga intones, "which were later thrown away. and God knows what we wrote, and what they said, but this is probably how they read." the stream of words at long last end, giving away to a rueful piano part that, for me, finally makes olga's past seem palpable. it is, alas, short-lived.

it's refreshing to see a young band flush commercial prospects down the toilet, b/c, really, this isn't exactly the album to expand the base. rehearsing the choir is an album for those who really want to believe. it is, like blueberry boat, an album, which is a form that, unfortunate or not, i have less and less time for (blame websites like this). i have exceedingly less time for albums like rehearsing my choir, if only b/c it, to my mind, squanders a wonderful opportunity. instead of making me feel a part of the family, it too often gave me an obstructed view.


allie said...

whoa, harsh words! if MY grandma were singing, i'd probably snap the disc in two so great would be my distaste. I think this song is beautiful--especially the moment you mention--but on the whole, i find Olga's voice not the least unpleasant, but thick with emotion and bounced off the prettiness of Eleanor's effectively affecting.
Cheers to the furnaces. Think White Light/White Heat and how awful Sister Ray was that first listen. And how much it rocks.

fred said...

allie: at its best, i think olga's voice is affectedly effective. (i also do quite like "slavin' away," which is quite touching, if i understand it correctly.)

when i was younger, and in my soul music phase, i really couldn't brook unusual voices and would have answered "no" to that question i posed about whether music and melody could compensate for a vocal deficit. once i got into dylan, though, i broke through that barrier and now appreciate a wide range of unpleasant voices.

notable exceptions: jeff mangum and the weedy guy from modest mouse. i *can* tolerate the guy from clap your hands say yeah, who sounds eerily like the modest mouse guy, on one song at least, which goes to show how important it is that i dig the band.

oh, and so we can coordinate our watches: i've listened to "sister ray" all the way through once and it never occurred to me that i should listen again!