The Fiery Furnaces Bitter Tea

[Fat Possum; 2006]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: indie rock, folk, blues, post-punk, experimental, cabaret, theatrical
Others: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Bob Dylan, Captain Beefheart

I never expected the Fiery Furnaces to disappoint this much. Bitter Tea isn't a terrible album by any stretch of the imagination, but considering that this is the band who has taken listeners to cabaret extremes through the fairy tales of Blueberry Boat and the theatrical adaptation of Rehearsing My Choir, the Friedberger siblings have churned out an album that couldn't be less exciting. The first listen of a Fiery Furnaces album once brought me a rush of giddiness and giggles. The feelings of my youthful childhood would come streaming back, smacking me in the frontal lobe song after song. But the most I could muster with Bitter Tea was a crooked smile and repeated half-hearted listens. Of course, as with any Friedberger release, it's a great trait to persist and persevere.

While the whole album may not be an attention-grabber, there are plenty of juicy musical nuggets that would make any ADHD sufferer ecstatic. "Black-Hearted Boy" not only jumps genres and styles, it juggles influences from different decades: the Carole King piano of the '70s, the synth-spaz of the '80s, the sparse melodies of the '90s, and the spit-in-the-wind experimentation of the new millennium. The track may also be the first showcase of Eleanor's beautiful and unique voice. Even when reversed, her vocals sound divine. This may be the first time I was engaged by the vocals more than the schizophrenic movements. "Oh Sweet Woods" mimics the multiple musical facets "Black-Hearted Boy" employs: a little disco, a little "Billy Jean" dance beat, and a large side of alterna-pop distortion. The Furnaces have found a way to warp from decade to decade without ruining the dynamic of most songs. The mangled pop of "Teach Me Sweetheart" is simply infectious.

The strength of the Furnaces is their innate ability to turn a whirling dervish of sound into a tasty, digestible pop gem, and nowhere is this more evident than during Bitter Tea's twisted pinnacle, "Benton Harbor Blues." Part soul, part sonic reducer, this track completely blows away everything else on the album. Matt and Eleanor have never been this noisy and experimental, nor have they ever been this poppy and concise. Yin and yang has never been expressed musically quite like this before, and it's these expressions that allow the ennui and camp of album opener "In My Little Thatched Hut" and the Dance Dance Revolution-inspired title track escape much scrutiny.

At first, the bad moments will fight to grab your attention. But ignore every inkling to disregard Bitter Tea and keep trekking through the muck. On the other side is the oasis the Fiery Furnaces have been desperately trying to show you for the past three years. Really, the only downfall of Bitter Tea is that it reeks of a transitional album. However, the travel is just as enjoyable as the destination, and where the Fiery Furnaces end up next is anyone's guess.

1. In My Little Thatched Hut
2. I'm In No Mood
3. Black-Hearted Boy
4. Bitter Tea
5. Teach Me Sweetheart
6. Waiting To Know You
7. The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry
8. Oh Sweet Woods
9. Borneo
10. Police Sweater Blood Vow
11. Nevers
12. Benton Harbor Blues
13. Whistle Rhapsody?
14. Benton Harbor Blues Again

Most Read