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Thursday, Dec. 1, 2005 06:58 pm

At least Granny rocks

An 83-year-old highlights the Fiery Furnaces┬ĺ latest effort

The Fiery Furnaces Rehearsing My Choir (Rough Trade)

The Fiery Furnaces
Rehearsing My Choir
(Rough Trade)

If you thought Blueberry Boat was a buttload of bull, steer clear of Rehearsing My Choir, a wildly pretentious tour de force that’s sure to alienate all but the most ardent Fiery Furnaces fans. Rehearsing, the duo’s fourth full-length, is a collaboration between the Friedberger siblings and 83-year-old Olga Sarantos, a gruff and salty old dame whose life story provides the album’s inspiration and shape. In addition to being Eleanor and Matthew’s grandmother, Sarantos is many things — an erstwhile organist and choir director, a gifted raconteur, an amateur historian of mid-century Chicago — but most of all, she’s a hoot. Imagine Bea Arthur channeling Studs Terkel in the role of Tiresias; imagine a musical-theater rendition of Stanley Elkin’s Mrs. Ted Bliss — whatever crazy scenario you come up with can’t begin to convey Sarantos’s outrageous charisma. By turns self-pitying, droll, acerbic, earnest, and theatrical, she invests her grandson’s schizo-baroque fragments with drama and élan, turning an otherwise migrainous mess into something that’s borderline listenable. Even more so than the Furnaces’ previous efforts, Rehearsing demands close attention and doesn’t always deliver clear rewards. Its narrative, which covers the 1920s through the 1990s, follows no linear chronology, and it’s not always clear whether Eleanor represents an interlocutor, a foil, a character in the oral history, or a younger version of Sarantos herself (one suspects that it’s all of the above, depending on whom you ask and how much weed everyone’s been smoking). The lyrics, most of which are set to primitive or nonexistent melodies, whiz by in a stream-of-consciousness rush, and the instrumental arrangements — various keyboards, mostly, punctuated by the occasional buzz-saw guitar — are even more convoluted than usual. Some songs contain so many discrete parts that it’s impossible to tell where one track ends and the next begins, and the mewling, twittering synthesizers and off-putting chirps and burps make it difficult to care. On the one hand, the CD seems almost hostile in its art-for-art’s-sake opacity; on the other hand, it seems too frivolous and improvisational to be anything but a stunt. Still, despite the very real possibility that Matthew tossed off all the music beds in a single afternoon, Rehearsing is strangely thrilling, like a box of old letters discovered at a thrift store. The Friedbergers’ affection and respect for their grandmother are obvious — and ultimately beside the point. Sarantos just might be the coolest member of the clan.

Tender Buttons

Arguably the most accessible act on the hipper-than-thou Warp roster, Broadcast delivers its most fan-friendly album yet with Tender Buttons — named for a Gertrude Stein novel but infinitely less difficult. Stripped down to founding members Trish Keenan and James Cargill, the Birmingham, England-based group mostly abstains from the chaotic, glitched-out excesses of 2003’s Haha Sound in favor of the more conventional avant-pop compositions of its debut, The Noise Made by People. The departure of guitarist Tim Felton and drummer Neil Bullock is hardly cause for celebration, of course, but the minimalist approach, guided by analog drum machines and throwback synths, creates more space for Keenan’s uninflected warble and Cargill’s shameless hook-mongering. On the most radically naked track, “Tears in the Typing Pool,” Keenan’s wistful vocals cling to a skeletal framework of guitar and keyboards, creating a vibe that’s more Françoise Hardy than Laetitia Sadier. The anti-imperialism anthem “America’s Boy” sprinkles soot and static over a relentless 2/4 beat, but its lovely vocal melody cuts through the grime and assumes its rightful place at the front of the mix. If Tender Buttons is less ambitious than its predecessors (not to mention its fictional namesake), it’s also more consistent, a perfect balance of catchiness and clatter.  
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