Chris Donaghey
Reviews Editor
June 01, 2006
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April 18, 2006
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January 25, 2005
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The Fiery Furnaces
Bitter Tea

The Fiery Furnaces are probably one of the most polarizing bands in music today. Once you hear the music, there's no "Oh, this is okay, I guess." It's either the best thing since sliced bread or as musically virtuosic as a loaf of Wonder Bread. Personally, I fell in love with them after hearing Blueberry Boat. Their first album didn't strike me as much, but this sprawling and jittery cascade of experimental novellas made me bite and start yearning for more. Then came the inevitable and impenetrable concept album about the Friedberger's grandmother. I wouldn't have been able to find a tune in that album if it hit me in the face with a socket wrench. Of course, where do you go from there? A double album written about each of their future selves? I wish. They wanted to release the granddaughter's perspective. Hmm. With Bitter Tea, Eleanor and Matt take the next step toward convincing us all that they've lost their way.

My stance may sound hypocritical at this point. How could I have adored the quirks and obscure references of Blueberry Boat and yet, dismiss this goofy leviathan? For starters, the duo play hot potato with chord progressions and melodies. They stated that this album would be more conventional and pop-oriented than their previous two LP; nevertheless, they appear to want many of the songs here to sound like "Bohemian Rhapsody" four times over. With one minute, tinny de-tuned piano keys darts and dashes like a fly and suddenly, without warning, the vocals start to reverse and the atmosphere dissolves into a jarring moog-driven syrup. On "Whistle Rhapsody," they take a nice progression and randomly decide to make it sound like a TV station went off the air. Then, the disturbing sound that I liken to someone is killing a cat with a piano. It's one of the many moments in which you have to ask, "What on Earth are they thinking?" Matt and Eleanor used to let luscious ideas thrive and breathe before effortlessly switching into their next epic chapter; here, a vast majority of the moments sound like frustrated surrenders to self-defeating ideas.

The other obvious difficulty is the lyrics, esoterically constructed into a mixture suitable only for doctoral students of literature. "My uncle Peter had the Parthenon Business Machine Remediation outfit" sounds like an elementary school sing-along compared to "There's a town I know called Nevers, no Nevers, never wasn't was what it weren't." What granddaughter story is like that? This post-modern poetic diarrhea is even less accessible when reversed, a method the Fiery Furnaces apply far too often. Save the relatively straight-forward (and surprisingly accessible) dream-pop of "Waiting to Know You" and "Benton Harbor Blues," an epic which dips its paintbrush into the best the duo have had to offer, it's obvious that these siblings no longer want the casual listener. They would rather be the most enigmatic band on the independent music scene than make music that is both challenging AND pleasurable.

Bitter Tea shows that I've reached the south pole with the Fiery Furnaces. The band that once challenged me with a lush collection of short stories has now lost itself in its own navel. Matt and Eleanor still show moments of fleeting brilliance, but their bold deconstructions of pop music are now not allowed to come to fruition. If you love constant shifts of pitch and meaning, then this may be to your liking. However, if that's not you, then this album's title would be more delicious than its actual content.

Release date: April 18, 2006
Label: Fat Possum
Rating: 3.5 / 10

[RMR]