This is a band that 'rhymes' advisor and visor, or (less egregiously but more poseurishly) 'extensia' and 'Valencia' in the song 'Straight Street'. A band with the sheer chutzpah to sequence the aforementioned 'Straight Street' right before the title track on their album Blueberry Boat, following a five-minute story song with a ludicrous nine-minute carnival-pop-operetta, the hipster wannabe-analogue to 'A Quick One While He's Away', knowing full well that the vocal lines in the two songs are nearly identical. (How could they not know? They're some kind of bizarre alternate-universe hipster savants.) A better comparison for 'Blueberry Boat' might be Phish's 'Esther', an oddly similar story song of the same length (it's even set at a carnival, thanks). The difference? The Furnaces' long song is steeped in an ironic cheesiness and jokey seagoing lyrics, while the Phish tune is a through-composed tune, smoothly put together and played with earnestness and instrumental virtuosity in spite of its goofy narrative.
The Furnaces sound, throughout Blueberry Boat, as if they're punching a bit above their weight technically. That's not necessarily a criticism, but in this case it does mean that they flail when they might drive a point home, shift gears pointlessly when they might bring 'round a triumphant chorus. 'Chris Michaels' is better than the two songs I've mentioned, primarily because its rock gestures actually rock; the trouble is that those gestures often last only seconds apiece, giving way immediately to the next stitched together 70's rock pastiche or notion of cabaret. 'Mason City' has a nice feel to it, a lovely vocal melody. And three and a half minutes in, you reach the moment when the pretty midtempo section gives way to a 'We Will Rock You' beat, which simply starts during the previous section, at odds with the foregoing rhythm, unrelated to it. It's someone's 'cool idea' I suppose, but really it's a placeholder for an elegant transition that never came. The rickety, tentative sound of the recording and performance is presumably supposed to mean something, or tie into some stylistic movement, or underscore the band's 'authenticity'; it's echoed in their songwriting, which has a throw-it-all-against-the-wall, see-what-sticks vibe. But let's allow ourselves the painful pleasure of asking: why the hell? What's the point of these half-baked ideas, this good-enough recording and playing? Say what you want about the cliché and formula of Tin Pan Alley or midcentury pop, but those craftsman would've been ashamed to write songs so poorly strung together.
(We break here to mention 'Good Vibrations', one of the all-time hands-down great pop songs, which would seem to fly in the face of the standards I'm talking about. Yet 'Good Vibrations' is closer to 'A Day in the Life' in terms of its continuity and consistency - much as Paul's lilting bridge simply takes John's verses into doubletime, 'Good Vibrations' moves sensibly between sections. An effort is made to bridge the sections, and if there's one particular edit that's just murderous - you know the one, right before the 'Gotta keep those lovely...' bit - Brian Wilson earns his way back into the listener's good graces with that gorgeous vocal chord crescendo, on the way to a final chorus. Wilson forgot more about song construction than the Fiery Furnaces will ever know, I should think.)
When I talk about 'well-wrought' art I mean art that's fully conceived, crafted with integrity and thoroughgoing seriousness, art that (for instance) deploys irony not as a way of dodging responsibility and complexity but because irony is the right way to do justice to the subject matter at hand. A well-wrought work is one in which the artist follows through on the possibilities and implications of her chosen form and subject, in which those things are wedded inextricably. It is one in which the chosen medium is embraced and utilized to extend the meaning of the text. Consider the 'Golden Era' of live drama on TV, which consisted almost entirely of filmed plays and works that would've served just as effectively onstage, possibly moreso. The form hadn't yet reached maturity; no one yet knew how to take advantage of its intrinsic qualities (seriality, domesticity, etc.). Consider next a show like Seinfeld, with its constant self-reference and accretive characterization (and pungent cynicism): it couldn't have existed until the technical aspects of the domestic sitcom had been established, its stylistic reach explored. (The one-camera sitcom, without laugh track, would grow familiar only later, with titles like Malcolm in the Middle and Arrested Development.) Seinfeld is a well-wrought work, its caricatures and grotesques notwithstanding; Marty isn't, so much.
I'd argue for instance that The X-Files wasn't a well-wrought show, at least after its first couple of years. (I've seen several episodes of the show, maybe a dozen, and the awful movie, Fight the Future. I've also read numerous scripts, and synopses of most episodes. I really liked the Christmas episode with the ghosts, which was funny. And Duchovny and Anderson were good. But if this is any indication of my opinion of the show, I'd much rather watch Kyle MacLachlan in the ludicrous, disastrous Twin Peaks.) Its essential failing is that it meant nothing: I've read a riveting analysis of the show that treated it as primarily a meditation on Watergate and the collapse of public trust in the Federal government, and the early 'conspiracy' episodes dripped with a paranoia redolent of tales like All the President's Men. But it's apparent now that Chris Carter never came up with an ultimate meaning for the show beyond its gestural identity (its post-Watergate storyline about gov't misdeeds). The finale, entitled 'The Truth', was a ridiculous mess, in which after an interminable courtroom scene which changed nothing, characters thought to be dead returned to give the big news, namely that...there's an alien/gov't conspiracy, and the aliens will be here in a few years. There's a date. That's not truth, it's not even drama. It's logistics.
The moral of the show was essentially just a mood, after all. That's a long way to go for weak tea, and one suspects that Carter knew it.
I won't flog Buffy here for the millionth time except quickly to contrast its finale, which capped off a very bumpy, only partly successful final season by making a bold statement that extended and deepened the thematic concerns of the show. It ended with a bang, with death and victory, and the fictional world changed in that finale. But Joss Whedon's show also did service to its original mission statement in its last hour, then went beyond it. The show had enabled the writers perhaps to learn something, and they allowed their characters to learn it as well; they didn't break trust with the audience.
Back to rock: Revolver is a well-wrought album, as is Sgt. Pepper's (barely), but The Beatles (which is many people's favourite of the bunch) is a damned mess. Many of the songs on the latter album are nothing more than notions. We don't embrace art because it presents us with goddamn notions, do we? We want to enter another universe. (Your host doesn't think much of Andy Warhol, as you might guess. And to go from ridiculous to other-ridiculous, I think Midnite Vultures is as good an album as Odelay or better, a weirdly morose and brilliant 'party' album akin to Remain in Light, though Odelay probably has more strong songs. Neither is as good as Sea Change, which I think of as the sequel to Vultures, the sound of the singer dealing with the hipster apocalypse of the earlier album.) Actually let's take a beat for the Talking Heads as well: Remain in Light is a well-wrought work of art, no question. And its total unsuitability as a party album is part of what makes it such a success. The first four tracks are a dance-party suite of unbelievable kinetic energy and force; the back half of the album isn't as infectious, but that's the material that elevates the whole work, building on the sadness of 'Once in a Lifetime''s refrain (which is the answer to 'How did I get here?' don'tcha know) to pull the rug out from under the polyrhythmic festival of Side A.
Blueberry Boat is not a well-wrought work, nor are its songs well-wrought in their own regard. I say this not because it's insufferable - it's not, I enjoy it somewhat! - nor because it sounds like it was recorded by middle schoolers. There is nothing in Blueberry Boat to take seriously; it's a novelty record. Say what you will about They Might Be Giants, but that band's music was always reaching far beyond their identity as a joke band or comedy duo; They didn't make novelty records, they just looked like they would. The short compositions on Apollo 18 are evidence of two restless creative spirits. Aren't they just notions? Yes. They're also, on average, about seven seconds long apiece. They're presented in a context that makes their notional quality meaningful. And the album wraps up with the curiously pretty instrumental 'Space Suit', which pretty much nobody remembers and which might be the most interesting statement on the whole album. Flood isn't as infectious a collection of songs but it's the better album to my mind, its relation to its predecessor the same as that of OK Computer to The Bends. I put on the latter of those two albums more often, but anyone who claims The Bends is the inferior work is basically completely batshit crazy, no offense.
I keep hitting this same point over and over, but it seems to me that if I'm to make serious work of my own, I need to know what the hell I'm going for. I want to be such an extraordinary writer, to write so extraordinarily, and I better know what models are worth emulating. Plus it's something to blog about, and what would you be reading, darling obviously-crazy and -bored Reader(s), if not this magical quiche of fear-and-solipsism?
One last thing about Midnite Vultures for a second, and its sorta-kinda follow-up, Guero. Why is Guero oddly lame? Because it goes basically nowhere. A bunch of the songs are groovy, but my experience with it is best summed up like this: I first heard a leaked copy of the album, tracks out of order, and when the time came to listen to the official release, the change in order made no difference. The songs gained nothing by context; they showed no consistent intent or any such thing. It's an album for smoking weed to, music as hipster fashion accessory; you're better off going for the more fertile, less lazy concoctions of Vultures, with its languorous Side B collection of 'Broken Train', 'Beautiful Way', and the climactic 'Debra'. That last song is about as committed a piece of comedy as you're gonna get, but it's also a serious piece of sex-drenched soul. Rather than gesturing at a genre, Beck flat-out dove into it with that tune. It's right where it belongs, at the end of an album of pastiches and genre-bending experiments, but it's also the purest piece of work on the album, full of lovely little touches (listen for the organ crescendo leading into the first chorus, and the great horn flourishes on the way out of it). Sure, he sounds like an asshole singing the tune, but so did the guys doing the tunes to which he's paying demented tribute. Even the assholery is authentic.
'Sexx Laws' is the same way, thrilling and naughty and just right, and the outro of 'Peaches and Cream' is like Beck's eulogy for Freddie Mercury, overwrought because that's the way you go when you gotta go that way. The whole album has the feel of a guy getting a silly idea, and then just riding it a lot further than any of his friends expected him too, emerging from the lab with a stray bit of genius that started life as a goof-off. Given Beck's reputation as slacker collagist and folkie nutter, the achievement of Midnite Vultures is pretty impressive: it's just many times better than it has a right to be, mainly by virtue of Beck's weird commitment to these left-of-center genres. When Outkast came out with their double album Speakerboxx/The Love Below a few years ago, the big surprise was that the first half, Big Boi's half, was the triumph. Andre 3000 couldn't seem to make up his mind what he wanted to be (except that he apparently wants to be Prince, which doesn't count, since Prince doesn't seem to know what he wants to be), and produced a messy, nervy, occasionally-brilliant but often just blah collection of experiments. And if 'Hey Ya' is a perfect pop tune - sneer all you want but it is - and 'Take Off Your Cool' and 'Spread' are awesome, they're surrounded by notional bullshit like 'Pink and Blue' and 'Dracula's Wedding' and 'Vibrate'. Andre doesn't seem to have followed his impulses to their (il)logical conclusions, so he has an album that's nothing in particular. An outtakes collection.
...whereas Speakerboxx boasts at least a half-dozen great tunes, and if they could probably have found a home on Stankonia, let's be clear: that's a compliment. 'Church' is among the duo's best stuff; same for the awesome trumpet build of 'The Rooster' and the nasty funk of 'Bowtie'. And that's to say nothing of the seductive single 'The Way You Move' - watch that bassline all but disappear into the fog after the chorus's effective, spare horn/vocal doubling. Fantastic. Better indeed, I would say, than Mos Def's New Danger - and I've got a soft spot for the mighty Mos, as Black on Both Sides is probably one of my favourite albums after many, many listens. His first album peters out a bit on Side B, but The New Danger is just too uneven to take seriously at all, given the flabbiness and flaccidity of its efforts at rock'n'roll. Mos is a fantastic MC, but as a rock bandleader he has more conviction than substance or ideas. Good for him for putting his balls on the table this time out, but the rock gestures on his last album add nothing. All of which is pretty much irrelevant when 'Sex Love and Money' comes on, as good a track as I've heard him do, a song so aggressively sexy and funky it should probably come with a wet towel to cool you off afterward. That track would have been a little out of place on Black on Both Sides (the far-too-much-of-a-good-thing jam 'Umi Says' notwithstanding), but it plays to similar strengths. The Black Jack Johnson tracks are mostly pointless.
I desire to attain the level of philosophy with these inquiries, indirectly. We're running laps on the hermeneutic circle here. I hope that they're worthwhile for you. And don't be fooled: there's a goddamn lot of declarative sentences up there, but only the sound is confident. The punctuation is declamatory but they're questions nonetheless. They form a question. I wonder if, answering it, I might achieve the infidel's version of heaven. And I wonder too, as pressingly but more hoepfully: what the hell will they have playing on the stereo when I get there?