When rock & roll started to bloat in the mid-'70s as the fully fattened pig of Sgt. Pepper settled into the consciousness of insecure, overtrained musicians eager to be taken seriously by their music professors, we got Emerson, Lake & Palmer, King Crimson and, ugh, Yes. We got not songs but suites that lasted longer than the entire Chuck Berry oeuvre. We got rock operas. Rock operas! Who said LSD was good for music composition?
The Fiery Furnaces seem to have written a rock opera in 2004, and, oddly enough, it's a barnburner -- a rich 76-minute excursion that employs piano, tasty guitar licks, fuzz-synthesizers, odd beats coupled with manic drums, sleigh bells and the sing-song vocals of brother-sister duo Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger, who manage to fit more words into an album than Dylan's Blonde on Blonde. Just don't try to figure out the storyline. It's something about the ocean, Beanie Babies, cell-phone salesmen, dogs who find God, Dexedrine and sweet, sweet dub.
At times Blueberry Boat sounds like music from the Who's great Quadrophenia; at others, it sounds like Exile on Main Street as if covered by a lobotomized Emerson, Lake & Palmer (which is good, by the way). Unlike their debut, the masterful Gallowsbird's Bark, in which stand-alone snippets ended just as they were beginning, on their second album the Furnaces explore melodies from both basic and odd angles, and they manage to create a kaleidoscope out of tunes until the songs are all screwy, beautiful and truly memorable. Long songs begin in chaos, then move into order before collapsing again. This confusion keeps listeners on their toes, but it's not hard work. Rather, it's a dizzying, wondrous experience.