Review ·

Perhaps a little known fact: The Fiery Furnaces' excessively demonized Rehearsing My Choir and satanic/girl-group/menstrual pre-teen pseudo-conceptual follow-up, Bitter Tea, were initially intended as a double album. So it's no surprise that when Matthew Friedberger, the main musical input to the Furnaces' opus, decided to drop his little sis Eleanor, he'd spit out two at once. It's not just that this guy has the Robert Pollard syndrome of song surplus in his head -- he has an excess of ideas for each individual song. Success typically lies in him removing the glut and hitting a pop stride, a feat that is achieved all over Winter Women, his promised album of summer pop songs. This isn't tidy pop music but Friedberger pop: dense, compound, radically and abruptly shifting, and leaving the listener searching.


But we should all be used to this post-Blueberry Boat, where he chucked the straightforward whimsy of the Furnaces' debut for expansive and exceptional lessons in A.D.D. His solo debuts see chaotic synths colliding on most tracks, haphazard keyboard farts spewing in the background, and guitar squawk lunging at incongruous moments. Winter Women finds the most success when Friedberger's soon-to-be-trademark tack piano emerges, providing grounding for the songs and allowing moments of clarity amidst the commotion. The initial spins of the disc lead to a game of Find the Melody, particularly on opener "Under the Hood at Paradise Garage," as Friedberger talks and mumbles, buried beneath the grand swirls of synthesizer. 


But as with the Furnaces' recent output, after the initial head-scratches and confused annoyance, melodies emerge from the mess: the spot-on interplay of guitar reverb and multiple swirls of keyboards on "The Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company Resignation Letter," the fact that "Up the River" could be a lost Something Else-era Davies treasure, the sweeping opulence of "Do You Remember?" and the relative simplicity of "Theme From Never Going Home Again." More or less every track here has a few elements of an ideal pop track. Friedberger, however, still prefers to drift along in aloof convulsion, injecting occasional bizarre vocal and musical obstructions and, of course, punctuating with some what-the-fuck tracks ("I Love You Cedric," "Motorman"). Honestly, the choice is yours: Dig for the elation of his pop moments or blow him off as too weird, complicated, and self-indulgent. Both are valid reactions.


This leads to the high-concept album of the pair, Holy Ghost Language School, another Friedberger rock opera. This one revolves around the opening of a Christian language School, a concoction that places much more logic with Rehearsing My Choir's chaotic run through grandma's memories of early 1900s Chicago. Once again, digging through Friedberger's yarn -- this time involving the fictional Scot Dombrowski's business exploits in China -- asks us to rely on music as exposition. This tactic intermittently thrived throughout Rehearsing My Choir's moments of frenzy, but here, given Friedberger's nonchalant, garbled vocal delivery, the gaps are taxing to fill in. Sure, liner notes and lyrics are provided, but such dedication to a winding plot rarely flies in the era of the iPod.


As he falls through the rabbit hole of his own musical logic, Friedberger continues to alienate and perplex and also to engage his audience. It just seems that his points for originality will soon buckle, leaving him with a dwindling cult following and defectors with a bad taste in their mouths. It's an upsetting scenario, honestly: The Furnaces' Gallowsbird's Bark and Blueberry Boat was the most promising debut/follow-up combination so far this decade. Here, Friedberger has once again proven his capabilities. At times they impress, but too often they confound, and it's beginning to seem as if he's too comfortable in his distance.


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