The Fiery Furnaces' debut album, Gallowsbird's Bark, had practically zero hype when it hit stores last fall, but by the end of 2003, it had become a mild underground sensation, in part because listeners were able to discover it for themselves. The record still sounds freer and more forward-thinking than a lot of contemporary music. Brother-sister duo Eleanor and Matt Friedberger tear through folk-rock conventions like so many cobwebs, though the restless recombination of piano, percussion, and extraterrestrial transmissions is really too undisciplined to be counted as much more than "promising." Given a limitless supply of sonic tricks, the Friedbergers gravitate too often to the same half-bluesy, half-martial singsong.
They haven't solved that problem on The Fiery Furnaces' sophomore disc, Blueberry Boat, though they do revise their approach somewhat radically. The album takes almost an hour and 20 minutes to get through 13 tracks of sprawling, erratic suite-songs, mostly in the spirit of The Who's "A Quick One, While He's Away." The style works miracles precisely once, on "Straight Street," which puts the barreling Gallowsbird's Bark sound through a variety of modulations, each in sync with Eleanor Friedberger's frazzled travelogue. Almost every other song alternates catchy moments with dull dissonance and oddity for oddity's sake.
Those catchy moments—a seafaring reverie on the title track, the Who-like steamrolling of "Chris Michaels," the disproportionate hard-rock roar of "I Lost My Dog," the snappy mystery play of "Inspector Blancheflower"—are almost enough to make Blueberry Boat essential. But in the end, this suite of suites sounds too inherently disorienting, however thrilling its fragments, and however entertaining it is to hear the Friedbergers' wordy, fantastical non sequiturs. The prospect of following the band on a musical adventure is exciting in a way few recent albums have been (with the notable exception of Wilco's bruised, disjointed A Ghost Is Born), but even after the five or six spins it takes to get acclimated to The Fiery Furnaces' new methodology, goodwill still tends to fade once the record hits its 58-minute anthology of randomness.
Nevertheless, Blueberry Boat may be 2004's defining album, if crazy ambition and obscured pleasure end up serving as the year's overarching musical theme. Since it's so hard to take at times, a lot of listeners will likely deem the record flat-out terrible, while others will love it simply because it's hard. In truth, Blueberry Boat is no masterpiece, and no disaster. It's the frustrating, intermittently rewarding work of a band that wants to give more than it has.