Winning Teddy Bears at the Ringtoss, and Capturing the Friedbergers

As masterpieces go, the Fiery Furnaces' Blueberry Boat was the swollen periwinkle stuffed panda your boyfriend wins at the state fair. First you're all "how sweet, he's trying so hard," but uncountable hours and dollars and softballs whizzing lamely past milk bottles later, you suspect this spastic effort is less tribute to your undeniable awesomeness than symptom of his gnarled neuroses—and like hell that thing's gonna fit in your Toyota. The jitters Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger concealed beneath their guise as curious visitors from the Eno System on Gallowsbird's Barkhere blossomed into genuine mania; the sibs' ingenious tunelet stitching, while bold, also masked a distrust of their own poppy facility.

Oh yeah, as masterpieces go, Blueberry Boat was a blast. Better ambitious indie goofs should channel their compulsions into pomo brainteasers than douse augmented major sevenths in vermouth or stamp "avant-garde" on random tantrums. Eleanor's slightly prim, amused intelligence presented even nonsensical lyrics as open-ended allusions—no wonder she and her bro spawned a Da Vinci Code for pop blogs. Yet for those beguiled by the seemingly absurdist surfaces of Blueberry Boat's nautical free flow, reading Michael Barthel's exhaustive demonstration of narrative consistency (at claps.blogspot.com) was like learning that "Fixing a Hole" really was about Paul shooting heroin.

EP is your standard jumble of singles, B sides, and other leftovers, but even flawed cuts—"let the dude sing" dips, Gallowsbird's Bark standout "Tropical Ice-Land" revved till instrumental clutter overwhelms the prosody, larks where the Furnaces disappear into alliterative whimsy—reward in their discrete way. And the first three songs, structurally flawless, accomplish as much in 10:47 as Blueberry Boat did at more than seven times that length—and, not coincidentally, cover less ground than any random 10-minute snippet of the full-length. On the opener, "Single Again," a simple keyboard repetition grows increasingly confused with each verse, neatly paralleling the narrative conceit (whittled down to sparse phrases) of Eleanor stumbling from one abusive marriage to the next, while the guitar leads an unsung chorus that's almost a parody of release.

Cramming basic song structures with intricate nuance is as useful an escape hatch from the trap of pop formalism as the iPod-gone-wild tune mashing of Blueberry Boat. Yet the Friedbergers appear wary of focused concision—they've already announced an upcoming two-disc set, including a full-length "radio play" featuring their grandma. As masterpieces go, sounds like a blast. But is there room on your bed for another massive stuffed panda?

 
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