The Friedbergers are back! After last October’s tediously inconsistent “Rehearsing My Choir,” which featured the shaky croaks of the siblings’ grandmother, The Fiery Furnaces appear to have mended their wounds on their latest release, “Bitter Tea,” delivering an eclectic album with staggering collective vision.
Sure, each Fiery Furnaces release is characterized by unflinching vision — boasting playfully circuitous lyrics, Eleanor’s striking vocals and arresting sonic jaunts — but that can lead to trouble, as evidenced by the disastrous “Rehearsing My Choir.” “Tea” was recorded to accompany the October release of “Choir,” as they tell opposite sides of the same story, but the Friedbergers pushed back the date to give each album its own chance for recognition. Whereas the first record’s rambling piano sequences left the listener both unsatisfied and exhausted, “Bitter Tea” (although still a bit too long) presents an astonishingly innovative album in message, emotion and acoustics.
“Rehearsing My Choir” told the story of their grandmother, Olga Sarantos, and her love for her late husband, but it was a backwards album in both content and style. “Bitter Tea,” on the other hand, presents us with an entirely different view of life: It alludes to a preteen girl thinking about adulthood and what’s in store for her. The duo begins “I’m Waiting to Know You” with the hopeful yet desperate lines, “I’m waiting to know you, far away/ send up a balloon says write to me soon/ I’m waiting to know you, far away/ set up at the pier, wait ’til you get here.” The track’s optimistic tone is tinged with a scoopful of sentimentality and enhanced by a rhapsodizing melody, reminiscent of any great heartbreaking love song from the height of American Bandstand.
In addition to “I’m Waiting to Know You,” “Bitter Tea” showcases some of The Fiery Furnaces’ finest songs yet released. “Teach Me Sweetheart” is a downright painful taste of lovelorn splendor. What is most special about the track, however, is its enduring modesty; the combination of Eleanor’s unassuming voice and Matt’s delicate backup is heartrendingly beautiful. Matt Friedberger has described this new album as a “girly record … bouncy and full of candy-colored sounds,” and with gorgeous vocals layered over a cheerful and carefree piano line, the power pop “Benton Harbor Blues” encapsulates this sentiment excellently.
In many ways, however, each one of The Fiery Furnaces’ releases is more impressive for its aural elements than for the hidden message in the songs themselves. You’ll never hear The (glorious) Fiery Furnaces on MTV, and there’s a wonderful reason why: The Friedbergers have created and evolved a captivating sonic experience that often transcends their confounding lyrics. They have cleverly blended rock, pop and electronica in a manner unprecedented in music today. Each song is chock full of subtle details: creeping piano chords, diverse, often dated or unheard of, instruments, seductively disorienting percussion and sprawling electronic interludes.
The duet is often criticized for Matt’s overwhelming contributions to their music compared to Eleanor’s sole involvement — her vocals. But it is precisely her sweet, wholesome sound that allows the listener to empathize with her meditative yearnings, especially on “Bitter Tea,” where her crooning is at the forefront of each track. Every song on the album is enhanced by her careful and deliberate enunciation and flair for alliterative rhymes. What’s more, her voice has matured since “Gallowsbird’s Bark,” achieving a deeper, lusty, more thoughtful tone.
Sure, 76 minutes is a lot of Furnace in one dose, and there are definitely songs that wouldn’t be missed. “Oh Sweet Woods,” though it opens as punchy dance track with an entrancing piano, is plagued by wandering guitars and too-sprawling electronic samplings. And then there’s “The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry” which, if you had a lot of time to sort through all its rising and retreating acoustic elements, might be entertaining and meaningful. (But you don’t. And it’s not.) Also, the chanting of the telephone number “(323) 221-7625” at the end is no match for “867-5309.” But despite those few bad apples, “Bitter Tea” is a wild acoustic tour-de-force.
Ultimately, the album title is apropos. Like any good Earl Grey, the Friedberger’s sound is initially hard to swallow, but in due time, incredibly worthwhile. For this reason, “Bitter Tea” is yet another stoke in the Furnaces’ ever-growing, smoldering fire.