Today’s song is one of those that came along at a certain time and hit a responsive chord. The Fiery Furnaces are a Brooklyn band consisting primarily of a brother / sister duo: Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, who hail from Ilinois, specifically Oak Park, a Chicago suburb. The 2004 album Blueberry Boat, I believe, was one of those new acquisitions my daughter brought around, and today’s song and a few other tracks, like “Straight Street,” registered with me and took up residence on playlists that still get played.
“Birdie Brain,” as you might expect, is a quirky little composition. It sounds rather like a carnival. Also like a cartoon. It would be a great song to make a cool animated video to go with and, while I’m not much of a pet person, the way the various dogs get worked into the song, always responding to some noisy or otherwise troublesome inconvenience, is rather charming.
Both Matthew and Eleanor sing on the track, but the latter takes credit for having a “bird” or “birdie brain” disrupted by noise pollution—the whistle of the steam train, the “aereo-plane,” the livery cars—and each source is matched by a dog having conniptions: “sends my spaniel insane,” “terrifies my terrier insane,” and my favorite, “drives my Doberman to drink in bars.” While to the male voice is given some pondering of how the Bronx River can recall the Rhône and become “sulfur steam,” and how the Des Plaines River “served for making me shiver,” and, again a favorite line, “that damnable diesel never fails to deliver.”
It’s a bit like the situation in Tom Waits’ “In the Neighborhood,” where the singer kvetches about the noise of a jackhammer and about being pinned-in by a flatbed. Here the Looney Tunes air of it all seems to suit a kind of erratic cartoon scene where a feeling of being pressured by the environs impinges on one’s general sense of self and purpose.
The chorus essentially says I’m going to jump in a lake if this doesn’t stop, though the terms of the extremity are interesting: “I’ll stop riding side-saddle / If they don’t stop the clikety clattle,” seems less a threat than a kind of nearly nonsense rhyme, but “I’ll jump in the undertow, penguin paddle” carries the feeling of being at one’s wits’ end with a funny image of a kind of cutesy paddling about in the drink. And the alternation of “drown in my wedding gown” or “drown in my dressing gown” is fun. Either drown in threads for your most dressed-up, unique occasion, or drown in your everyday deshabille. It doesn’t really matter, ultimately, though I like the image of drowning in the wedding gown because it seems to reinforce the whole “birdie brain” idea, like a kind of “Perils of Pauline” scenario.
I can’t say for certain why I chose this song for today, except that, to my mind, it follows well the odd soundscapes of Wire. The FF crank out truly odd tunes and their lyrics can be rather arcane, even byzantine. “Straight Street” would require way too much effort for my birdie brain to unpack, so I went with the easier of the two songs I can be said to know. Both songs say something to me about the ambiance of city-dwelling, and about the kinds of interactions one has, willy-nilly, with one’s environment, as in the air and noise of the place, its weather and its traffic.
The traffic and other such conditions in New Haven have gotten rather worse since the time when I first knew this song—we’ve even got gridlock now!—and it can sometimes “send my spaniel insane” alright. And there’s nothing quite like searching for le mot juste while that “damnable diesel” causes the entire block to shake. Well might those squirrels quiver. And of course the notion of the discomfort coming due to a hangover applies as well: “whistles woozy my bird brain.” Indeed. #tweettweet