memories are better off sung

Rehearsing My ChoirTwo years since I first discovered it, The Fiery Furnaces’ Rehearsing My Choir is still my favourite album. It’s a deeply ambitious work; a semi-biographical account of the life of a fictional character based on the Friedberger’s grandmother, Olga Santaros, with extensive guest vocals from said grandmother. It really shouldn’t work. But it does, and it’s brilliant.

I’m going to struggle to describe how good musically this album is. The Fiery Furnaces have a very dense and complex sound, and they can sometimes be a difficult listen, violently switching styles mid-flow. You’re led to believe you understand how a particular song is going to unfold, and then they suddenly break into what is essentially a different song. Repeat several times per track. It’s demanding on the listener, and sometimes feels a bit like riding a rollercoaster as it inverts atop a loop, but it’s beautiful and cleverly done.

The lyrics are equally clever. The Fiery Furnaces are unsurpassed when it comes to deft wordplay and short, smart rhymes, and I think this album is their best example of this. You really have to listen to it, of course. This is the best song on the album, a story of questionable veracity about a time when Santaros and her sister visited a gypsy to put a curse on a cheating husband:
Note the way the song seamlessly moves back and forth between the present and the past; note the intelligence and incisiveness of the storytelling; but note most of all how much fun they’re having! Olga and Eleanor are clearly having a ball making this record. It’s a love-letter between granddaughter and grandparent.

A lot of my favourite albums are about growing up and that’s perfectly understandable, because I’m growing up and of course I relate to them. Rehearsing My Choir is about growing old, which is something entirely different. Throughout, Olga plays the role of 83-year old (and fictional) Olga Santaros, and Eleanor plays the younger version, but this juxtaposition isn’t played for the contrast, but more for the way the two characters complement each other. It’s about a young woman enjoying her life in mid-20th century Chicago, and simultaneously looking back at it sixty years later. It’s about nostalgia, obviously, but it’s about more than that, too; it’s about the relationship between yourself at 20 and yourself at 80, and about how people cope with growing old. It’s ever so sad and it’s ever so happy, often at the same time, and it’s a masterpiece. Go listen to it. It might take some work, but it’s worth it.

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