Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School
[859 Recordings; 2006]
The following is a suggested Wikipedia entry for Holy Ghost Language School.
Matthew Friedberger (born October 21st, 1972 in Oak Park, Illinois) is one-half the talent of the ambitious, though some would say foolhardy and overreaching, indie rock duo The Fiery Furnaces. While a quick listen to his recent output may cause some music critics to scoff that he is simply “fucking around in the studio,” the main difference between Friedberger and your dropout friend with a basement full of random musical instruments, is that Friedberger has a recording contract.
On August 8, 2006, Matthew Friedberger released his first two solo albums as part of a single package from 859 Recordings. Winter Women and Holy Ghost Language School, as they were called, were recorded by Bill Skibbe in Benton Harbor, Michigan between December 2005 and March 2006. While much has been made already of the liquid pop fantasia behind Winter Women (1), there has not been much critical analysis given to the convoluted narrative threaded throughout Holy Ghost Language School‘s rock opera, perhaps because while most rock operas typically feature elements of theatricality or musicality to the story, HLGS comes off more as muffled excerpts from a nonsense mystery novel set to noise. An attempt at a track-by-track breakdown follows.
01. Seventh Loop Highway – 3:57
The story opens with Scot Dombrowski of the Full Business Men’s Gospel International Fellowship Foundation (2) saying aloud that he is listening to the radio, while listening to the radio, and then promptly falls asleep and dreams he is listening to the radio. The narrative frame firmly in place, Dombrowski dreams he is driving down the Seventh Loop Highway, most likely in Texas, and he is reading messages on billboards that are instructing him to “start a school for business Chinese taught by definitely not native Chinese speakers.” The liner notes reveal the hand of God pointing down, with a shower of dollar signs sprouting forth. While the notion seems potentially lucrative in theory (3), second thoughts would reveal numerous practical pitfalls to such a business plan.
The Full Gospel church emphasizes the gifts of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost to bestowing prosperity on earth. Dombrowski imagines he is being instructed to overcome language barriers in the international community by conducting business in a divinely inspired tongue, similar to the “tongues of fire” that befell the Apostles in the New Testament’s book of Acts. (“And then appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire… And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit granted them utterance.” – Acts 2:1-4) Speaking in tongues, or Glossolalia, is a common feature in the worship practices in modern Pentacostalism as well as the Charismatic Movement.
02. Holy Ghost Language School – 4:13
The second track is told from the perspective of an unidentified individual talking to Dombrowski on the phone from his office at 3000 Grapevine Mills Parkway (4) in June. The individual is preparing a pamphlet on “Christmas-ian” attitudes toward competition for coaches of little league boy’s volleyball and Freshmen girls track for a local school district. The narrator suggests to Dombrowski that instead of simply saying a prayer and writing a 50 word translation, as they had been doing, that they should instead sponsor a “prayerfully guided, Chinese chatroom,” and use the advertising revenue to start the Holy Ghost Language School.
At this point in the album, Friedberger begins to transpose vocal sounds, a technique that will become increasingly frequent as the album progresses.
03. The Cross and the Switchblade – 3:54
The Cross and the Switchblade is the name of a nonfiction novel by Rev. David Wilkerson.
04. I Started Using Alcohol at the Age of Eleven – 3: 57
After drinking six diet Cokes, the narrator, possibly Dombrowski, takes off to lead a rehab session at the Teen Challenge for Women over 18 center, during which time we hear of Tifani’s early history of alcohol consumption. After she speaks, the narrator asks if anyone has “ever heard a voice, which though you couldn’t understand quite what it said, managed to comfort you somehow?” At this point, the quirky synth beat gives way to a jazzy player piano melody. One person, possibly Tifani, responds in the affirmative. With several layers of his own vocals, Friedberger asks what the voice says. ”It said this…” and then the music segues into the dirty bass riff of:
05. Do You Like Blondes? – 2:51
Dombrowski and Tifani take ATA (5)flight 4377 “to a place it doesn’t go to see someone who wasn’t there.” We learn that Tifani believed, “If only I didn’t know English, then the devil wouldn’t have gotten me.” She prayed that the Lord would show her other languages, perhaps Swedish, so that her soul would be protected. Tifani, however, does not like blondes.
Gossip columnists point out that Friedberger personally prefers redheads (citation needed).
06. Azusa St. – 4:24
With giant plans and PowerPoint slides swirling through his mind, Dombrowski envisions pitching his Chinese business proposal to the Headquarters of the Full Business Men’s Gospel Foundation International Friendship Fund, Inland Empire Chapter. Whilst thinking this over, he peers into Tifani’s eyes and believes it “some kind of window” through which he could see into the original Azusa Street mission.
The Azusa Street revival was sparked by William J. Seymour, an African-American minister, in 1906, 100 years prior to the release of Friedberger’s Holy Ghost Language School. Seymour, an uneducated and one-eyed son of freed slaves, first heard the Pentecostal message while eavesdropping on a segregated classroom in a Houston-based Holiness church, led by Charles Fox Parham. The message being, in short, that the only true evidence of being baptized in the Holy Spirit, a “second grace,” is when God comes into your body and allws you to speak in a tongue that He can understand. Seymour was encouraged by Parham to spread the Pentecostal message to the local black community, and was eventually invited to preach for a small group of Holiness worshippers in Los Angeles. However, when it was discovered that Seymour himself had not experienced glossolalia, he was dismissed from his post. Poor, unemployed, and in Los Angeles, Seymour was thankful to have some of his parishioners invite him to speak at a neighborhood gospel party, during which several people went into trance-like fits for hours, speaking in tongues and some even spontaneously began playing musical instruments they had never touched before. The phenomenon quickly spread and soon led to the integrated Apostolic Faith Mission church being established at 312 Azusa St., in downtown Los Angeles.
William J. Seymour
07. Topeka and San Antonio - 3:40
Another bizarre romp. Not only does the song make the listener question their limits for considering a song a “song,” but the narrator himself is also questioning the reality of the experiences and emotions happening inside him throughout this concept album. We learn of “experimental salvation” techniques involving “a special prayer trigonometry tongue” bequeathed to the narrator’s pupil, Clarkette W. Clark, “by means of spiritual electrification through the index finger.” In many Pentecostal practices, the ability to speak in tongues is passed on from the reverend to his parishioners through touch.
Charles Fox Parham
The prickly issue of “too much touch” may be slyly hinted at in the song’s title. Charles Parham, the preacher who first taught William J. Seymour the Pentecostal message, established his own ministry in Topeka, Kansas in 1898 after breaking with the mainstream Methodist church. His religious career came to an end in 1907 when he was charged with two counts of sodomy with young males in San Antonio, Texas. And although the charges were ultimately dropped, due to an unwillingness of the young men to testify, it may help explain the title of the following track.
08. A Mystical Preparation to Lewdness – 2:47
09. Ship Scrap Beach Business – 2:18
The narrator arrives in Roppongi, which is in Japan, not China, to do business. In particular, because Friedberger always dwells on particulars, he plans to sell “33 1994 Toyota Typhoons,” which are intake kits designed to increase horsepower (6). The narrator arrived via the Narita airport, with “26 yen in [his] pocket and $3,600 in [his] coat.” It has been noted elsewhere (7) that on the Winter Women track “Hialeh,” that song’s narrator arrived at Narita with 26 yen and 25 cents to his name. The business deal was to be negotiated through the use of special prayer, of course.
10. First Day of School - 2:50
The HGLS is set up near the Asakusa market, again in Japan. The message taught is to lowball their concrete prices underneath their Beijing competitors. No mention of special prayer is made, although the mix includes several Friedbergers joining together in an atonal chant, perhaps an indication of glossolalia.
11. Things Were Going So Well – 4:07
The grinding, mechanized beat that kicks this track off gives the impression of mass production, a la Metropolis. Here we are told that the HLGS is so profitable and expanding that Dombrowski has had to “hire extra instructors for the mutually comprehensible Cantonese” courses. However, as these plans are going underway, our narrator falls asleep. When he wakes up he discovers that he is driving on the Seventh Highway Loop listening to the radio, but he cannot make out what the billboards read. It becomes very plausible, at this point, to believe that the entire HLGS enterprise was nothing more than a dream. Or was it?
12. All in Vain or the Opposite – 5:05
Shocked by his own discovery, the narrator now struggles to come to terms with the meaning of these visions, if that was indeed what they were. For several minutes, while the narrator is presumably wrestling important phenomenological and ontological questions, Friedberger presents the listeners with scattered drum programming and sharp, irregular bursts of piano and guitar. Suddenly: tongues!
13. Moral and Epilogue – 2:00
“BUT IN THE END NOW WHO’S TO SAY WHAT WHAT YOU SAID OR WHAT WHAT YOU DIDN’T? BUT IN THE END NOW WHO’S TO SAY WHAT’S IN YOUR HEART OR WHAT ISN’T IN IT?”
(1) Winter Women review, by the Post-Rockist
(2) Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International homepage
(3) Lavelle, Louis, “China’s B-School Boom,” Business Week, January 9, 2006.
(4) Grapevine Mills homepage
(5) ATA Airlines homepage
(6) Toyota Typhoon at Auto Parts Warehouse
(7) Narita with 26 yen in my pocket, Blueberryboat wiki
-Posted by Todd