Even for a band eager to flummox its fans, Rehearsing My Choir is a curious album. For a start, it features vocals by the 83-year-old grandmother of The Fiery Furnaces' two main members. Then there's the sound of those vocals, which aren't so much sung as spoken by a woman too aged to be drawn out by drama. The rustle of a lap-warming afghan is all but audible in a background blocked by vaudevillian music played on harpsichords, saloon pianos, rocking guitars, and junkshop electronics. Then there's the story, which seems to have something to do with a mid-century Chicago haunted by characters like two boys named Kevin ("You mean two jerks!" Grandma says) and a doughnut-making doctor who treats gunshot wounds with delicious blackberry jelly.
Any talk of a straight story would overstate The Fiery Furnaces' apparent interest in coherence, but the flickering narrative works to pull ears closer to the band's most wowing musical offering to date. Like live shows that make reworked medley madness of songs from Gallowsbird's Bark and Blueberry Boat, the new album bolts between ideas that sound chaotic and choreographed to the extreme. Songs shift between snippets of electrified disco, Venetian court music, bent blues, and cosmic rock without falling off their tracks, and the similarly scattered narrative throws out enough through-lines to suggest themes that prove as elusive as they are allusive. The grandmother comes off as wry and comfortable with the word-soup phrasings she utters alongside regular singer Eleanor Friedberger, who in turn sounds studied within the discursive soundtracks crafted by her brother Matt.
The Friedbergers have worked to create a weird-family myth almost from their start, and Rehearsing My Choir goes a long way toward fortifying it with fantastical tales presented the same as believable ones. It all transpires like a bizarre radio play—or a Dada reconstitution of one of those Family Ties episodes in which the Keatons sat around the couch, flashing back to clips from the past, guffawing over a family history they couldn't begin to divide into fact and fiction.