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Greek Chorus


The Fiery Furnaces: Rehearsing My Choir

Rough Trade, 2005

Rating: 2.8


Posted: October 26, 2005

By Laurence Station

The Fiery Furnaces’ Rehearsing My Choir is like going over to a friend’s house and looking at old photo albums with the friend’s family. Everyone makes references you don’t understand and uses a shorthand mnemonic in-joke notation while commenting on images of babies rolling off of mattresses or water sprinklers whipping around crazily on late summer afternoons. You don’t get it and you never can get it. No offense, but you’re just not part of the family.

Drawing on the memories and spoken-word ruminations of Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger's 83-year-old Greek-American grandmother, Olga Sarantos, Rehearsing My Choir spans the last eight decades of the 20th century, shifting across time between and within songs and generally taking the kind of overly artificial stream-of-conscious detours found in highbrow literary works. This technique actually works against Rehearsing My Choir, even more so than the in-joke insights. At least when Sarantos opens the album by mentioning how she plans to take a “late train to my lost love,” on “The Garfield El,” we have something to hold onto. Indeed, Sarantos’ pining for the man who got away proves the most effective, relatable aspect of Choir.

On “Though Let’s Be Fair,” Sarantos is forced to play the organ while the one that got away is married in the church where she’s the choral director. The subsequent title track, temporally twenty years later, finds her playing organ at the wedding of the lost love’s son. But then the song goes on a lengthy detour about a perverse bishop who has it out for her, and how the not-so-holy scoundrel is eventually forced out of the diocese and sent packing to San Jose. Creating a song cycle recounting Grandma being married to one man while secretly holding a torch for another apparently failed the avant-garde litmus test.

Other instances where Choir gets unnecessarily sidetracked are “The Wayward Granddaughter,” about another Greek-American grandmother and the difficult relationship she has with her granddaughter (though the back-and-forth commentary between Eleanor and Sarantos is endearing), and “Slavin’ Away,” a multi-part -- from tinkling piano to fuzzy chords to acoustic strumming -- examination of the universal plight of women as homemakers and breadwinners. Such contrivances only serve to drive a deeper wedge between the listener and any emotional connection with the material.

And then there’s the production. Matthew Friedberger isn’t shy about pouring on the bells and whistles (literally), but it’s the canned obviousness of his techniques that breaks whatever flow Choir aims for; whenever there’s a reference to Sarantos being an organist, you can count on dramatic organ fills to sound. And on the closing “Does It Remind You of When?,” when a complaint is made about annoying construction noise during a funeral, sure enough, an obnoxious buzz-saw cacophony arrives, right on cue.

Sarantos’ delivery is also something that’s either going to work for listeners or prevent them from following the Furnaces down this particularly prickly rabbit hole. Sarantos’ vocal style lurches between a more feminine-sounding Stephen Hawking to someone performing Schoenberg’s moonstruck "Pierrot Lunaire." It is nothing if not unique.

Rehearsing My Choir is too self-consciously hip to be a twilight reflection on things past and is filled with personal asides only blood relatives can relate to. For the Friedbergers, there’s no doubt it's a very special recording. But it’s rare to put a price tag on a family scrap book, no matter how decoratively gussied up it is. Ultimately, who is this musical keepsake meant for?

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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