The Fiery Furnaces have not quite built their following and reputation on a foundation of accessibility. After packing two undeniably unique, off-kilter albums full to the brimming with explosions of ideas and often minimally-related musical segments that worked as often as they didn’t and in the end were, depending on your point of view, either genius or unbelievably annoying, the brother-sister duo of Matthew and Ellen Friedberger managed to make even those LPs seem conventional with the release of last year’s Rehearsing My Choir. The album extensively featured their grandmother, Olga Sarantos, contrasting her spoken alto narrations with her granddaughter’s youthful, hopeful singing to build an ambitious, at times almost impenetrable concept album that told the story of a life in a wonderfully new way. Enter 2006’s Bitter Tea, recorded at the same time as Rehearsing My Choir, and, so they claim, their most accessible work to date. It very well may be, but it’s a testament to the Furnaces that even so it’s still far from the light exercise in synth-pop they may make it seem.
At a running time of over 70 minutes (including two bonus reworkings of album tracks), Bitter Tea is a definite heavyweight, and it can often feel bloated. The Fiery Furnaces are restless, hyperkinetic—very rarely do they let a particular sound reign undisturbed for more than twenty seconds before introducing a new musical variation of some sort—but only on extremely rare occasions do their aural experiments feel like the willfully esoteric pretension that experimental rock can often slip into. You get the sense that the Freidbergers decorate their music with a million little ever-shifting noises because they genuinely believe that it sounds good, and most of the time it does. This is an album of plinky toy pianos, hummy little buzzy synths and majestically warbling maestoso synths, vocals played backwards and wordily abstract lyrics that alternately either drag or whip out moments of “yes, that’s perfect”. Title track “Bitter Tea” begins as a space-age funhouse ride of crazy electronic splooshes and zips, while “I’m Waiting to Know You” starts out as a bittersweetly simple chord progression of earnest teenage longing that slowly pries itself open with those clunky toy pianos again. “Police Sweater Blood Vow” is a wonderful pop song, Beatlesesque piano and a brilliantly funky release of a vocal hook, “Vibrate, buzz, buzz, ring and beep / Tell me, babe, what time is it now”, that unhinges as expected (but to a lesser extent) and ends up remaining relatively traditional for the album. “Benton Harbor Blues” is likewise a catchily chugging synth-pop bounce, all leading up to the dramatic climax of album closer “Whistle Rhapsody”. “An isolated lady / An isolated old lady / A dignified dame / Who keeps her own counsel… / Turns her back on the wicked world” Matt begins, possibly flipping the image of Sarantos from Rehearsing My Choir in a song that builds right up to the heavens with its lyrics as they go.
The problem is that moments like these are mixed in with songs like the aimless, uncompelling abstraction of “The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry” and excessively dragging songs like “Black-Hearted Boy” that work well initially but continue to plod themselves into the ground. Then again, for every long stretch of unfocused noodling, they pull out a masterpiece like the definite highlight of the album, “Nevers”. The song begins with a crackly, soulful thump of synthesizers, before the addition of vocals chopped beyond recognition. As the song continues it shifts (like every other), but each change here builds gorgeously off of the last, rising perfectly to the climax before cutting out unexpectedly on thrust of miniature organ. This song is transcendent because it contains every emotion, the happy right along with the sad, the cracked right along with the whole, in a mixture that feels exactly like life.
The Fiery Furnaces write beautiful pop tunes, their critics say, and sing them beautifully—it’s too bad that they bury them in abrasive electronic noise and superfluity. But the true spirit of the Fiery Furnaces is that all of this noise, this sound, this crush of sounds, is entirely necessary. It’s true that they could probably benefit from a stricter censorship of their own endless creativity, but Bitter Tea is an uncontrolled outpouring of musical concepts in every way, and you sense that the Friedbergers wanted this. The good ideas right along with the bad—life.