THE FIERY FURNACES with APOSTLE OF HUSTLE at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Monday (October 10). $16.60. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
Just when you thought the Fiery Furnaces couldn't get any weirder or more conceptual, they stick a fork in the light socket and fry your expectations to a finely charred crisp.
Though the jangly new wave and electro-rock undertones running through January's surprisingly cohesive EP suggested the siblings Friedberger were tiptoeing away from the ADD surrealism of 2004's vaunted and vaudevillian Blueberry Boat (Rough Trade) disc, it's now clear that pandering to pop convention was merely a palate cleanser for the Fiery Furnaces' most off-the-wall offering yet.
Rehearsing My Choir, slated to drop October 25 on Rough Trade, is a fascinating collaboration revolving around yet another member of the extended Friedberger clan - Matt and Eleanor's grandmother, Olga Sarantos. Part rock opera, part beat poetry, part Wonder Years voice-over, the album not only features the former Greek Orthodox choir director's (hence the title) raspy old-lady vocals; it's essentially a fragmented narrative of her life in Chicago from the 20s to the present day.
Singer Eleanor Friedberger claims they were always keen to include more family members in the Fiery Furnaces recordings, and their musical granny's "strong personality" made her the obvious choice. And though Sarantos grew up immersed in more, er, traditional forms of music, she seems jazzed about the results.
"She doesn't own any records, so she doesn't listen to much popular music, although she has stacks of sheet music," Friedberger begins.
Friedberger's in Austin, Texas, at the beginning of the Furnaces' pre-album tour, trying to shield her cellphone from the windy tail end of Hurricane Rita. "I remember playing our first record for her, and she heard the electric guitars and asked, 'What's that noise?' But then I caught her tapping along on the table to our EP.
"She loves the fact that we're getting to make music and travelling. Music has been her only interest - well, not her only interest. She likes some other shit," Friedberger corrects herself, "but music is what she's done in her spare time and how she's made her living. She's only seen us play once, and her only comment was 'Put on some more lipstick. '"
While Sarantos's rambling, scratchy speak-singing (she "plays" herself, while Eleanor's sweet vocals represent both the character as a girl and the character's granddaughter in the present) takes some getting used to, this album might just be the most successful example of the Fiery Furnaces' offbeat undertakings. That's because his grandmother's biography finally gives songwriter Matt's fantastical lyrics the weight and purpose they so sorely needed.
Rehearsing My Choir shapes alliterated mantras about pastries into the dark yarn A Candymaker's Knife In My Handbag, conjures the clatter and bang of Chicago public transit in opener The Garfield El and tongue-in-cheekily sends up soft-focus sentimentality in the intentionally maudlin We Wrote Letters Every Day (in which Matt imagines the love missives his grandparents never actually wrote or sent to each other).
Best of all, the dizzying, rattletrap arrangements that tumbled pell-mell through the Furnaces' earlier work are honed into evocative soundscapes that rely on rickety upright pianos, delicate harpsichord and found sounds to channel the era appropriate to each song (the tracks unfold decade by decade, in a slightly twisted chronology).
"It's supposed to sound dilapidated," Friedberger explains. "The harpsichord broke after our first two days, which is why you can only hear it on the earlier tracks on the album. And we don't really have a huge budget to start tracking down instruments, so we had to use things close at hand. All we had in the studio were pianos that'd been cast off by the school district. Matt put tacks on one, to mimic the sound of an old barroom piano, and tape on the other, to get a crackly effect."
How enterprising. If you think all this sounds like a parallel-universe version of Tommy, you're not far off. According to Friedberger, Matt, whose first love was writing children's stories and who claimed Blueberry Boat was inspired by the Who's Rael, is "totally into" the idea of turning his mini-suites into a full-on rock musical. His sister doesn't know whether she'll be included in the plan. Right now, Friedberger's just trying her damnedest to remember all the words to the songs on Rehearsing My Choir. She sings all the parts, including her grandma's.