Jumping the Ring of Fire: The Impact of Genre on Judgment
It’s fantastic how quickly the buzz for the Fiery Furnaces’ new disc, Rehearsing My Choir, is shooting its way through the music community. If you’re unfamiliar, Rehearsing is sort of a non-linear CD opera for which sibs Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger built a whole album around selected moments from their grandmother Olga Sarantos’s lifetime worth of memories. Sarantos herself put in some hours in the studio alongside her granddaughter, and her 83-year-old voice is featured prominently. The total effect is like looking through a stranger’s family photo album at a thrift shop. Just glaze it over with lots of creative electronic timbres and a record collection-worth of influences; then mix.
The album, which only dropped on Oct. 25, caught my eye during a regular scan of record reviews on Pitchfork (think NewMusicBox for the indie-rock set). No surprise, since it was put out by the indie-label Rough Trade and music these days tends to stick close to the boxes and categories where it is known. The shock came this a.m. when I logged onto Sequenza21 and Jerry Bowles was gushing. New music fans may crossover into the alternative side of the record store, and alternative artists visit the Lucier bin, but bizarrely, neither side ever really talks about it publicly. Both sides take a loss there.
Whether or not Rehearsing My Choir is a great album (critic Amanda Petrusich only offered it a 4.0 out of a possible 10 in the Pitchfork rating game, though Sequenza21′s Bowles called it “darn brilliant stuff”), my hope is that this marks a true “sledgehammer between the genres” moment. After reading Petrusich review to get at why she scored the disc so low, I think it’s a development that would be good for all of us.
Here’s why… Switching back and forth between the indie side and the new music side of my brain while listening to the album itself, I found the last graph of her review especially eye-opening. She writes:
…No matter how open your mind, how welcome to art-without-directions you may be, it’s difficult to consume Rehearsing My Choir without taking some kind of quasi-academic, cultural studies stance, reachable only after hours of careful, dedicated, uninterrupted listening: The emotional components are in place, but willfully (and successfully) obscured behind obtuse instrumentation and overdone wordplay. You can pick it apart, but can you dance to it, roll around on the floor with it, weep to it under your favorite blanket? This is not to say that art should be easy or instant or utilitarian–but it should be penetrable, purposeful. And somewhere along the way, the Friedbergers got all chewed up and swallowed by their own experiment.
Fair enough. Didn’t inspire me to dancing or crying either. But I did find it both penetrable and purposeful, and the obtuse instrumentation and overdone wordplay could be seen as part of the record’s charm. Getting chewed up by your own experiment may be overkill for Petrusich, but for Bowles that’s very likely what sparked the glimmer of brilliance. It’s a philosophy ingrained much deeper in the fan culture on both sides than there is room to fully explore here, but strikes to the heart of what ultimately divides the two—and it’s a moving target on a the continuum of what music means and should accomplish.
So maybe Rehearsing My Choir fails as a pop record. But for the very same reasons it’s quite possible that, if you rip the label off, it succeeds rather brilliantly as new music.