Over the course of the Fiery Furnaces' albums, Matthew Friedberger has shaped a style that's distinctive enough to be called Friedberger-esque. His solo debut, Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School, presents two discs' worth of the most accessible, and most experimental, versions of that sound in a yin-yang duality, much like the way the Furnaces' previous albums, Rehearsing My Choir and Bitter Tea, were supposed to be released as a complementary set. While both parts of Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School have lots of berserk pianos and squelchy synths, song titles that would make Robert Pollard jealous, and lyrics sprinkled with Scrabble-worthy words, Winter Women has a string of songs that just might be his best forays into (almost) straightforward pop. "The Pennsylvania Rock Oil, Company Resignation Letter," "Ruth vs. Rachel," and the glorious "Up the River" are sunny but cryptic, with summery harmonicas, synth-strings, and keyboards that sound a little like an animatronic take on '70s soft rock and AM pop. "Her Chinese Typewriter" is another standout, showing once again how Friedberger can take a seemingly random phrase like "Virtue and carbon copy ditto-paper eyeshadow blue" and turn it into a hook, thanks to the irresistible melody supporting it. Most of Winter Women follows suit, with melodies (especially on "Hialeah" and "Theme from Never Going Home Again") that are prettier and more prominent than on his Furnaces work. Of course, there are also songs that would fit perfectly on a Fiery Furnaces album: it's easy to imagine Eleanor Friedberger singing "Under the Hood at the Paradise Garage," while "Big Bill Crib and His Ladies of the Desert" is a globe-trotting adventure that feels like a lost chapter from Blueberry Boat. As the album nears its end, increasingly experimental songs like "Motorman" -- which has hissy, whispered background vocals that sound like they're in Parseltongue -- signal the more challenging territory of Holy Ghost Language School. The title itself is quintessentially Friedberger-esque, as is its story, which chronicles the adventures of an American missionary teaching English somewhere in Asia (the first track on the album suggests it might be in China; later, "Ship Scrap Beach Business" mentions Tokyo's Roppongi district). The themes of travel, culture clashes, and Eastern motifs and melodies here are similar to Blueberry Boat and Bitter Tea, but the actual music is denser and more open-ended -- not quite as difficult to parse as Rehearsing My Choir, although Holy Ghost Language School has some of the radio-play feel of that album, especially on tracks like "The Cross and the Switchblade" and "Do You Like Blondes?," which are largely spoken word with expressive synth squiggles and pianos in the background. As a whole, Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School is a lot to process at once, but untangling the mysteries of Friedberger's music feels like more fun than it has in a while.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2