The Fiery Furnaces - Bitter Tea

"“I'm a crazy crane, I lost my true love in the rain” to a tune that could have been robbed from The Mikado. It's not normal, I tell you. And, in other peoples' hands it could well be insufferable. "


The Fiery Furnaces – Bitter Tea


Rehearsing My Choir, the previous album from the brother and sister duo of Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, seemed to split opinion amongst The Fiery Furnaces' fans. As for me, it was my first introduction to the group and I thought it was marvellous. Initial reports suggested that Bitter Tea was more of a return to the style of their previous albums. If this is the case then I cannot possibly see what all the fuss was about: Bitter Tea is just as fractured and fucked-up as Rehearsing My Choir. Hooray!


There are differences of course – for one thing loopy grandmother Olga is not around to share vocal duties. Whilst this is a shame the duo have compensated by adding backwards vocals to pretty much every track on the album. The only other real difference is that the piano doesn't feature as prominently, although it still gets to deliver all the melodies. Of which, it must be said, there are no shortage. As with Rehearsing My Choir each song usually contains several melodies and if they can't be made to 'fit' then the same attitude prevails – to hell with it, or let's put a slab of noise in between the two. Take album opener In My Little Thatched Hut for example. Cheap keyboards and even cheaper percussion give way to piano power chords. The piano then gives way to an acoustic guitar, then a tribal beat and then violent keyboard squiggles and backward sounding synths. The guitar returns, as does the piano, then the vocals go backwards as tacky keyboards play a little stomp before, finally, ever-quickening sonic farts bring the song to a conclusion. All the while Eleanor sings as flatly and as dispassionately as one has come to expect about a subject that makes no sense whatsoever. It's great of course, but for anyone who found Rehearsing My Choir's hyperactive changes of tone a little trying Bitter Tea will taste – well, bitter.


I'm In No Mood sounds as though it was written at the same time as Rehearsing My Choir. An insistent piano is augmented by keyboard washes and various instruments play the rather simple refrain that underpins the song. As mentioned previously most of the tracks feature backwards vocals and this one is no exception. It shows that there is something engagingly child-like about the group. Other people who thought, wouldn't some backwards vocals sound cool, might bung them on a track or two. But to put them on every one? It's like letting a child loose in a sweet shop. In fact the album sounds at times as though children on a sugary high have produced it. (Not that the album sounds sugary in any way.) Imagine precocious children, with no one telling them what they can or cannot do, making an album after one or two sherbet dabs too many. And then getting their bored big sister to come in and put some vocals on top. That might give you some idea of the album, but I doubt it. In fact, at various points the album almost tips into outsider music, so far does it sit outside what is normally considered 'normal'. Take the title track Bitter Tea, for example. It kicks off like an explosion at a carnival with a great stomping tune and crazy keyboards. After a while a piano begins to dominate before the synths return. Momentarily a new song takes over before the old one returns, but it does so only briefly as the tone changes once again and a man sings "I'm a crazy crane, I lost my true love in the rain" to a tune that could have been robbed from The Mikado. It's not normal, I tell you. And, in other peoples' hands it could well be insufferable. One of the main reasons that the album keeps you enthralled rather than annoyed is the fact that it contains some great tunes. If, at times, it sounds like a cross between a seventies sci-fi opera and a collection of warped show tunes (and it does) then this doesn't obscure the quality of the songs.


Some would disagree. It is undoubtedly the case that The Furnaces do sabotage songs that would otherwise be far more palatable to many more pairs of ears. And, on this album at least, the backwards vocals do become tiring after a while. Equally, unlike on Rehearsing My Choir, the lyrics are often overly esoteric and sound (in the same way that Stephen Malkmus' can do) that they are the product of an automatic writing session. Still, these are minor gripes for an album that roams around all kinds of music (including the hoedown on Police Sweater Blood Vow – don't ask, doo-wop and the pop sounds of Billie Jean) and ends up sounding unlike anyone else save, of course, themselves.


Words: Chris Dawson


And now Zoe's opinion; we had to contrats these two reviews! - ed


Bitter Tea is album number 5 for the Friedberger siblings, aka The Fiery Furnaces.  They have chosen to experiment further into the world of the dark short-attention-span electronic theatre. It's a sort of concept album, though Matt Friedberger would differ (read the interview! -ed).  The album was supposedly written from perspective of an 11-year-old Asian girl doing Black Sabbath type songs.


Little Thatched Hut opens the album with a bizarre trippy electronic, psychedelic freak out.  I'm In the Mood's melody is driven by a tacked piano that sounds just like my toy piano I had when growing up.  In this song we also get introduced to the use of backwards lyrics, something that becomes a recurring theme throughout the album. The piano sound is distinctly Asian with a bit of a baroque sounding twang; especially with Matt Friedberger's use of scales.  The title track Bitter Tea has a cartoon-like Asian intro, and it runs very close to being out and out mockery, but due to the collage like nature of their music structures, it's clear that they are not trying to dismiss, simply quote. Teach Me, Sweetheart is one of my favorites on the album.  The music is brilliantly arranged, Eleanor's voice is beautiful and the lyrics are fantastic.  She goes into this almost trance like state, it's hypnotic, "hiss like a snake, she gave orders to spill my blood... growl like a dog, he gave orders to spill my blood... come away, teach me, sweetheart".  This was the song that stuck with me the most and I can still hum it even after not hearing it for days. Next comes, my absolute favorite song on the album, Waiting To Know You.  It has this classic 1950's prom electronic swagger that is pure magic and is quite radio friendly as is.


There are many moments where any of these songs could easily be confused with pop songs, but The Fiery Furnaces have made sure that doesn't ever truly happen.  Nope, at the exact moment you start singing along, they come in and bash it on the head and drag it away just in the nick of time.  It's actually refreshing.  I am sick of bands playing me what I naturally want to hear, I'd much rather them freak me out.

And they do just this with the track The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry.  Matt Friedberger sings backwards, the music is all backwards and spooky things start popping into my head.  Another interesting thing to note is that the drumbeat in Oh Sweet Woods is a beat boxer...  Off To Borneo is fantastic and sounds just like Os Mutantantes.   Police Sweater Blood is very folk rock and has this Bob Dylan in an electric chair feeling.  Nevers is definitely on my top 3, though I prefer the remix version at the end of the album.


Despite any of my dispositions to choices made on the production of this album, the results are fantastic.  It is keyboard driven or rather based pulse and is clever and diverse.  You're not going to be bored listening to this album - however it may freak you out at times - you are definitely not going to get bored.  I think what Bitter Tea and their last release, Rehearsing My Choir - recorded with their grandmother, they are sort of companion albums - suggests to me that The Fiery Furnaces are a force that will be continue to be reckoned with.  By refusing to pigeonhole themselves stylistic and genre wise, The Fiery Furnaces help push the bounds of music as an art-form.  Amen.


Words: Zoe E. Gottehrer