A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
November 25, 2005
“Listen to this tune that sounds like a condolence card bought at the last minute for someone you can’t stand, someone you never liked … Listen to this tune I’m playing now, kids. Does it seem sad? Does it remind you of when?”
These are the words of Olga Sarantos, the 83-year grandmother of Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger, siblings known collectively as The Fiery Furnaces.
Granny Olga along with the Furnaces are responsible for one of the strangest albums in recent memory, Rehearsing My Choir .
It’s a wild journey led by Olga -- who really did direct a choir in a Greek Orthodox church -- through darkened corridors of the past, filled with memories, fantasies, triumphs and regrets, part sung and part spoken word by Olga and Eleanor (who portrays the younger Olga through most of the album. )
It’s all told in the secret language that family members share, part verbal scrapbook, part travelogue of 20th Century Chicago, part radio drama, Eleanor’s clear youthful vocals playing off the deep, knowing voice of Olga, colored by meandering melodies, synthy squiggles, bleeps and blurps, church music, carnival tunes, insane soundtracky backdrops, kiddy songs played on what sounds like dingy- dongy toy xylophones -- and even a few moments of raunchy rock ‘n‘ roll.
In the old days they’d call this “art rock.“ A listener might hear strains similar to Brian Wilson’s Smile, to Laurie Anderson, Pere Ubu, The Residents, They Might Be Giants, maybe even Phillip Glass or Terry Riley, definitely a heap of prog-rock excess, maybe even a little early Electric Light Orchestra.
And to answer her questions, posed at the end of the album’s first song “The Garfield El,” and again near the end of the last song, yes, it seems sad, though often the tunes are funny, sentimental, mysterious and just plain crazy, And yes, it does remind me of “when” -- my own “when,” the strange tales and traditions of my own family.
It makes me wish I’d recorded my own grandmother before she died.
One niggling detail: Although the stories here have the sound and feel of an oral history project, it’s actually Matthew Friedberger who wrote the words.
In an interview in Tunetribe.com, Matthew said, “A couple of (songs) are stories that I knew -- one is a story she always told about her father-in-law coming back from Greece after the war, and she got drunk at a kontiki bar. I asked her for details on other stories, like in 'Guns Under The Counter', with the bowling team and the mafia. She was a big help."
The stories in Choir go gracefully from the mundane to the surreal. For instance, in “Guns Under the Counter” you meet a doctor who treats bullet wounds with blackberry jelly after a gangland hit on a Cicero donut factory.
When you listen to Rehearsing My Choir for the first time it helps to know that the stories are not in chronological order.
Matthew posted a little guide on Amazon.com: “Tracks 3 and 4 take place in the 40's; tracks 5 and 6 in the 20's and 30's; track 7 in the later 50's; track 8 starts in the very early 40's; track 9 goes back and forth; track 10 takes place in the early 60's; the final track takes place in the early 90's. Track 2 takes place a few years ago; track 1 took place when it was recorded.”
And by the way, “The Wayward Granddaughter” (Track 2) isn’t literally about Olga and Eleanor, and “Slavin’ Away” (Track 9), is supposed to be Olga fantasizing about the plight of working women.
The last song, “Does it Remind You of When?” Olga finds herself playing for the funeral of a friend, maybe even an old boyfriend (“and his wife is there in some chapel she picked/and there’s not even an organ/I have to play on some broken upright piano …”)
The noise from the traffic and some nearby construction project is so loud, “you can’t even hear the ceremony,” Olga moans as the guitars, keyboards and drums grow burst into an oppressively loud fury.
At the cemetery, covered in slush Olga passes by the graves of her parents, her sister, her husband. “I can hear the cars/just 100 feet behind,” Eleanor sings, “and I can smell the rock salt in the air/And I know in my bones, it isn’t fair …”
“Listen to this tune I’m playing now, kids,” Olga says once again. “Does it seem sad? Does it remind you of when?”
*They Got Lost by They Might Be Giants. This is a compilation of “rarities” from Johns Linnel and Flansburgh. McSweeney’s. There’s even a commercial for a New Jersey graphics company and ditties used on t.v. and radio shows.
Among the highlights: “Reprehensible,” a loungy song about a man tormented by voices that tell him of his past incarnations (“the secret history of my immortality … the records of my unspeakable crimes in previous lives in previous time indelibly stains the pages of history …”)
* A live song called “Disappointing Show,” which sounds like they’re making up as they go along. The vocals are off key and the band, with a roller rink organ out front, sounds like they’re playing for cocktail hour at a rest home. In other words, it’s wickedly hilarious.
* “All Alone” a faux science tune about a germ on the moon, originally appearing on t.v. in an ABC documentary series, anchored by Ted Koppel called Brave New World.
* “The Army’s Tired Now,” which has nonsense lyrics (surprise, surprise) but is a minute and 11 seconds of Pet Sounds-inspired bliss.
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