If there’s a band out there creating music more divisive than the Fiery Furnaces’ experimental art-prog-pop, then I certainly haven’t heard them. Though their debut Gallowsbird’s Bark was generally accepted as one of the great debuts of 2003 (and I’m inclined to agree), every successive release has been met with some level of resistance, and in the case of Rehearsing My Choir, downright hostility. There isn’t much middle ground on The Fiery Furnaces. You either love what they do, or you just plain can’t wrap your head around it, and sometimes these reactions occur simultaneously. Whether you’re of either opinion about the band, one thing that everyone can, most likely, agree upon in regards to a Fiery Furnaces album is that you should expect anything and everything.
On Bitter Tea, you can expect odd song structure, whimsical narratives, endless permutations on similar chord progressions and a progressive approach toward pop songcraft. Oh yeah, and hooks! Look to “I’m Waiting to Know You,” “Teach Me Sweetheart,” “Police Sweater Blood Vow” and “Benton Harbor Blues” to hear four of the Friedbergers’ most sublime pop songs to date. When the hits album is being compiled (probably next year at this rate), if these four songs aren’t on it, I’m going to be very, very disappointed.
Keep in mind that it takes an entire four songs before you even get to one of these, and each one’s presence becomes all the more rewarding. “Teach Me Sweetheart,” which creeps up after the laser-show muppetry of the title track, is a pretty ballad with a chorus that builds with one tease of a drum break, but fades before truly climaxing. This track alone is among the band’s best throughout their career. “I’m Waiting To Know You,” which follows, is a ’50s-sounding tune, with the most straightforward melody the band’s written in a long time. “Police Sweater Blood Vow,” however, is almost as straightforward, with a pop sound reminiscent of anything from Gallowsbird’s Bark, and the joyously silly chorus of “vibrate, buzz-buzz, ring and beep/tell me babe what time is it now.”
“Benton Harbor Blues” could be the best thing on the entire album, however, a seven-minute trip that begins with a fuzzy, layered drum intro, segues into the lead melody, segues again into something completely different, then returns to that same melody. And what a melody it is, simple, almost Motown-like, with what sounds like an Optigan doing much of the work. Yet, once the band gets into a groove, layers build upon each other into a mighty, yet subtle masterpiece. And, from there, many of the other songs reveal their own warped beauty, like “Oh Sweet Woods,” with its house beats, psychedelic folk atmosphere, and a twisted and humorous Mormon kidnappers narrative ending with the classic closing line, “I think you’ve got the wrong Eleanor Friedberger.” The sing-songy “Borneo” sounds more like a Blueberry Boat outtake, on the other hand, and opener “In My Little Thatched Hut” changes course about a dozen times, without sacrificing anything in the way of user-friendliness.
On an interesting note, those too impatient to make it through the entire seven minutes of “Benton Harbor Blues” (you’re all heathens by the way) can skip to track 15, a sort of radio edit reprisal that cuts out four minutes and compacts the rest into a bite sized little single version of the song, which makes for a good mix tape substitute when the Maxell’s starting to run out. This reprisal brings me to another interesting aspect of the album. Considering the inclusion of two reprisals at the end, it almost seems as if the band is willing to let you hear the album on your own terms, editing “Benton” and adding a more straightforward vocal version of “Nevers,” much more pleasing to the ears than the first version. The original is the only song on the album I have trouble listening to, primarily because of its disturbing vocal chop-ups. Yet, it’s far from the weirdest on here. That award can be given to “The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry,” which is composed almost entirely of backward vocals and music. Those backward vocals get settled throughout the album, and after hearing them so many times, they become an essential part of the equation, even if they’re off-putting at first.
The Fiery Furnaces’ take on pop music may be a little peculiar, but reveling in the band’s weirdness is essential to accepting them and learning to love them. On Bitter Tea, that weirdness is what transforms some otherwise good pop songs into outstanding artistic triumphs. It’s a long album, and a confusing one, and an imperfect one at that. It just also happens to be utterly brilliant.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.