When The Fiery Furnaces' first album, Gallowsbird's Bark, came out in 2003, it was a promising piece of catastrophic indie-folk, but it certainly didn't portend the explosion of music—some of it downright bizarre—that the band has released in the ensuing years. Just months after The Fiery Furnaces' jagged fourth album, Bitter Tea, lead guitarist and co-songwriter Matthew Friedberger pairs two solo albums, Holy Ghost Language School and Winter Women. The former is one of Friedberger's periodic avant-garde exercises, running one long spoken-word story through 45 minutes of stunted piano signatures, wiggly synthesizers, chunky guitar, and willful cacophony. Songs like "Azusa St." sound like Prince gone awry, while others, like "Things Were Going So Well," approximate the nightmare-icana of Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart. Holy Ghost Language School is something of an endurance test, and though fragments of songs reach the epiphanic weirdness to which Friedberger aspires, it's hard to sort through all the garbled transmissions to get the message.
Winter Women is more rewarding by design; it only suffers from excessive length and Friedberger's continued insistence on slathering songs with random waves of noise and self-conscious dissonance. Winter Women's best tracks—like the Pavement-esque "The Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company Resignation Letter," the jovial "Up The River," and the art-disco exercises "Don't You Remember?" and "Bet You Don't!!!"—all sound so bright and likeable that Friedberger's attempts to scuff them up come off like a kind of insecurity, as though he was afraid of being mistaken for a softie. (See also: Friedberger sticking people who want Winter Women with a copy of Holy Ghost Language School.) But when Friedberger works his way through the multiple strong melodic lines in the peppy march "Ruth Vs. Rachel," or delivers the spoken-word beauty that is "Hialeah," he rewards the patience of those fans and admirers who know not to give up on him yet.