For better or worse, Rehearsing My Choir -- the Fiery Furnaces' collaboration with their grandmother, Olga Sarantos -- is a family reunion set to tape: equally intimate and insular. It's not that the audience isn't invited to listen in, it's just that the Friedberger siblings and their grandma are so in their element that they don't necessarily notice when their listeners aren't following along. The album, which loosely interprets and embellishes some of Sarantos' memories of life in Chicago (using Eleanor's vocals as flashbacks and Sarantos' as the voice of experience) is easily their most challenging work yet. Interestingly, along with Sufjan Stevens' Illinois, it's also the second indie album in 2005 to explore Chicago and its environs. But while Illinois plays like a Fodor's Guide, Rehearsing My Choir is more like asking a local for directions or a recommendation for a really good pizza place and hearing bits and pieces of their life story along the way. Theoretically, Rehearsing My Choir's singular story should make it a more focused work than Blueberry Boat, but its rambling, stream-of-consciousness feel makes it even harder to get your bearings in the storytelling. Indeed, the album feels more like a radio play or an audio book than a collection of songs (and its liner notes may as well be a play program), and it pretty much demands to be listened to as a whole, at least the first few times. Musically, the album focuses on the Furnaces' signature pianos, which sound like they belong in a speakeasy, parlor, or melodramatic silent movie score, depending on the mood of any particular song. Mischievous, rag-tag melodies abound, especially on "Candymaker's Knife in My Handbag" and "Fortyeight Twentythree Twentysecond Street," which turns into deranged salsa halfway through. Sarantos' voice is strong and sardonic, while Eleanor has never sounded better, particularly on "Slavin' Away." Grandmother and granddaughter have some funny back-and-forth dialogue as past and present. On "The Wayward Granddaughter," Eleanor begins, "Once upon a time there were two Kevins," and Sarantos retorts, "You mean two jerks." And as difficult as the album can be, Rehearsing My Choir does have some fascinating stories to tell, especially when the memories mix with fantasy: "Guns Under the Counter" mentions a doctor who is also a donut maker, and repairs gunshot wounds with blackberry filling. "Seven Silver Curses," which recalls Blueberry Boat's longer tracks and is almost a story unto itself, finds Sarantos racing around town, gathering ingredients for a potion to tame her cheating husband. Still, it's easy to feel that the Fiery Furnaces are throwing way too much at their listeners with this album; it's probably not going to appeal to people who want their indie rock to have hooks, rousing choruses, or singalong melodies, and even some who loved Blueberry Boat might have a hard time getting into Rehearsing My Choir. The album cements the band as a love-them-or-hate-them proposition, but the Fiery Furnaces remain true to themselves.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares