Overflowing with creativity and energy, fueled by a cheery restlessness, the Fiery Furnaces are perhaps the most charmingly difficult rock band in years. Most acts wait a few albums to unleash their rock operas and concept albums, but just as Gallowsbird's Bark seemed to contain several albums' worth of ideas and melodies (that often sounded like they were playing at once), the Fiery Furnaces skip ahead and deliver the fascinating, vaguely conceptual, and only occasionally frustrating Blueberry Boat less than a year after their debut. The band packs even more stuff into these 13 songs, nearly all of which have distinct movements that sound like two or three times as many tracks. Stories about pirates, Spain, a love triangle, a girl kidnapped into white slavery, World War I, and (of course) blueberries are surrounded by strange noises and twists that act like funhouse mirrors, stretching and warping the album's essentially simple melodies until they're about to fall apart. At times, Blueberry Boat sounds like it was made entirely out of the noodly bits that most other bands would junk for being too weird and difficult, but the Fiery Furnaces forge them into an album that's both more pop and more radical than Gallowsbird's Bark. Granted, it's not a total change from the band's previous material: Gallowsbird's Bark's medley-like "Inca Rag/Name Game" and "Tropical Ice-Land/Rub-Alcohol Blues/We Got the Plague" suggested that the band really wanted to make multifaceted epics that stretch out to ten minutes or thereabouts (of which there are four on this album).
The rootless, rambling, travelogue feel of their debut remains, but Blueberry Boat feels more like a breakneck tour through different kinds of music -- around the canon in 80 minutes. Keyboards, drum machines, samples, loops, and computer manipulation abound, giving the album a sparkly, colder sonic palette that feels like an equal and opposite reaction to the earth-toned garage-folk-blues of Gallowsbird's Bark. The bright, bold title track -- the tale of the hapless captain of a blueberry boat beset by pirates -- is one of the most striking examples of the album's new sounds: starting with a busy signal-like loop backed by a faux hip-hop beat, the song quickly shifts to a wheezy, shuffling rhythm and steep slide guitars; carnival organs make way for relatively down-to-earth guitars, pianos, and keyboards before beginning all over again. As the captain, Eleanor Friedberger goes down with the ship and her blueberries, and this kind of perversely stubborn bravery mirrors the band's fearless artistic leaps.
The Fiery Furnaces disorient their listeners and then charm them, or charm them by disorienting them; fortunately, because their music actually is pretty charming, this tactic usually works. At their best, their albums feel like the adventures of the Friedberger siblings; Eleanor's voice is as aloof and, er, fiery as ever, although she sounds downright gentle on "Turning Round." Matthew Friedberger sings more on Blueberry Boat, and his quieter delivery makes a striking contrast to his sister's more attention-getting vocals. But sometimes they sound almost like the same person, especially on the strangely sing-songy melody of "Quay Cur," one of many songs with lyrics as insanely detailed as the sounds that surround them. On top of the many allusions and references in the album -- which include Beanie Babies, Sir Robert Grayson, OxyContin, and Damascus computer cafes -- dazzling, obscure wordplay like "you geeched that gazoon's gow" fill out more than a few songs. You could say that the Friedbergers' stream-of-consciousness approach nearly reaches Joyce levels, but that would be pretentious, and while Blueberry Boat might seem pretentious on paper, it's actually just playfully brainy. The delightful "Birdie Brain" rails against the march of progress and technology (and antiquated technology, like steam trains and livery cars, at that) against a backdrop of twinkly synths straight out of the PBS astronomy show Star Hustler.
Blueberry Boat sounds like it was made for and by people with highly developed long and short attention spans; it's an album of children's songs for adults. This is especially apparent than on "Chief Inspector Blancheflower." It begins as a story about a boy unable to concentrate long enough to get good grades but with a sharp focus for details like "tickets, tangibles, chips and stars." Matthew Friedberger's lead vocal is backed by a tweaked, babyish one, mimicking the song's flashback lyrics. It's a clever trick, and at times, the album threatens to drown in its own wittiness, but every now and then there's a briefly emotional moment that's more powerful than an entire ballad would be; the instrumental coda at the end of "Blancheflower" is one of these glimpses. The band also has a gift for making the strange sound familiar and the familiar sound strange: on "Chris Michaels" they pay homage to the Who, the past masters of rock operas and concept albums. Eleanor plays the emotive Roger Daltrey to Matthew's more reflective, pensive Pete Townshend, and the song's rapid-fire riffs, big pianos, and mix of stomping rock with plaintive interludes is pure Who -- although the Who never wrote a rock opera that involves getting arrested for credit card fraud and escaping from the Bombay Army. But, fortunately, the Fiery Furnaces did. As engaging as the album can be, it's still a lot to digest; in the wrong mood, it can feel like too much time spent at the amusement park. Blueberry Boat can be appreciated in the same way you would a puzzle box with intricate, endlessly shifting parts: you can spend a lot of time trying to unlock (or describe) its riddles, or just enjoy the artfulness behind them.