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April 21, 2006

Fiery Furnaces serve strange Tea

Brother-sister bands tend to be sort of weird. Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger are far from an exception to that rule. In fact, the Fiery Furnaces may be the poster children for it, especially considering the way they’re said to have fought as kids. Their most recent album, Bitter Tea, is exactly as odd and unpredictable as we’ve come to expect from this duo.

The album is essentially everything people hate about pretentious indie/experimental music, but, not so coincidentally, it also embodies everything others love about it. In short, if you liked their previous album, Blueberry Boat, you’ll probably like Bitter Tea, though they are very different albums (with Bitter Tea notably losing a lot of the folksy sound of Blueberry Boat). If experimental music pisses you off, however, stay the hell away.

At first listen, the strange melodic sounds of Bitter Tea made me consider introducing the album to my more herbally-inclined friends, but after closer consideration, I decided that most of the tracks would probably freak them out. The first track, “In My Little Thatched Hut,” has Eleanor singing low and quiet over a combination of thumping drums, quietly strumming guitar, and techno jungle.

It’s actually a good choice for a first track, as the guitar is sort of catchy, and Eleanor does have a great voice. The song starts to go downhill after about three minutes when Matthew shows up…singing backwards. Yes, the Fiery Furnaces have grown extremely fond—perhaps too fond—of playing vocals backwards. It’s an interesting, if unoriginal, device, and in some songs it’s very successful, but it simply gets overused on this album.

The next track, “I’m in No Mood,” is minor but catchy, with electronica pleasingly alternating with piano and then occasionally (and, it seems, randomly) picking up speed and resembling dance music. Again, this isn’t the sort of music you’ll just put on for the first time and enjoy without paying attention to it. The album demands engagement and quality headphones for at least a few listens. Honestly, if I wasn’t writing this, I probably wouldn’t have given this album as much of a chance as I did. It turns out there’s some good stuff on here; however, you need to have patience to find it. Much of the album barely qualifies as music, with songs like track seven, “The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry,” that are simply annoying messes of backwards sounds.

Track five, “Teach Me Sweetheart” has obnoxious techno/jungle at the beginning, but it gets better. At some points, it isn’t even that strange—except of course, for the lyrics (“He gave orders…to spill my blood”). I’m tempted to write about the Fiery Furnaces’ lyrics, but between the odd subject matter, the interesting turns of phrase, and all the backwards-ness, it’s too big of a job. (Note: Some enterprising audio nerds have already gone through the trouble of straightening out all the backwards vocals, and I’m sure you can find it on your favorite peer-to-peer client.)

Track 11, “Nevers,” may be my favorite song on the CD. It is by far the most extensive use of the backwards vocals but also the most successful. It has a strong melody, with both Matthew and Eleanor singing, sometimes alternately, sometimes at the same time, and about half the time backwards. The keyboard solos gives it a sort of Candy Land, childish feel, which is a nice contrast to the rest of the song.

I’m not sure if it’s a conscious reference to “Chin2,” but the track “Bitter Tea” has a lot of similarities to the song in the famous and hilarious cult video of two shirtless Asian kids dancing and lip-sinking (just Google “Chin2”). That said, it’s not the greatest song on the CD.

Verdict: In all honesty, I’m not a huge Furnaces fan. I’m more on the indie end of the indie/experimental spectrum. But this album is pretty good, and though hardcore Furnaces fans inform me that this album isn’t as good as Blueberry Boat, I think the two are roughly comparable. Bitter Tea isn’t brilliant, but when it’s not being annoying, it’s interesting and moderately accessible.