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Bitter Tea

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Album Review

Initially intended to be the companion piece to their 2005 epic Rehearsing My Choir — aka "the grandmother album" — the Fiery Furnaces' Bitter Tea arrived half a year later and on a new label for the band, Fat Possum (where, presumably, the Friedbergers will keep company with the Black Keys as the blues imprint's fledgling indie rock colony). Conceived as a more youthful album of lovelorn songs to go along with Choir's voice of maturity, Bitter Tea is slightly less complicated than its would-be companion album; in fact, it features some of the band's catchiest songs since EP. "I'm Waiting to Know You" turns a moony, '50s-style ballad into slow-dance synth pop, while "Police Sweater Blood Vow" is warm, playful, and even a little sexy, and as straightforward as any song with "Vibrate buzz buzz ring and beep" as part of its chorus can be. However, this is a Fiery Furnaces album, and lest things get too poppy, some of Bitter Tea's best songs are shot through with lengthy passages of burbling synths. Both "Benton Harbor Blues," which features gorgeous vocals, a Motown-inspired bassline, and emotional but not overly sentimental lyrics, and "Teach Me Sweetheart," which could easily be a yearning power ballad along the lines of Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Maps" in the hands of a more commercially minded band, both feel like thwarted pop singles.

Of course, part of the Fiery Furnaces' appeal from the beginning has been the way they screw with what could be very simple, almost ditty-like songs. However, on Bitter Tea the ways that they mess with their music aren't always as intriguing or memorable as what the songs could've been like if they were eccentric yet concise in the way that, say, Gallowsbird's Bark was. At times, the album feels oddly diluted, neither as strikingly experimental as Blueberry Boat or Rehearsing My Choir, nor as brilliantly catchy as their debut. And at 72 minutes, Bitter Tea is too long; the stories that it tells just aren't big enough to fill up all that space. Still this is a Fiery Furnaces album, and even if all the songs aren't uniformly great, there's something interesting about each of them: "I'm in No Mood" sounds a little like a fractured version of "Flight of the Bumblebee" performed by a haywire player piano; "Oh Sweet Woods" moves from a thumping dance beat to flowing acoustic guitars, then nods to Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean"; and, with its Asian-inspired melody, "Bitter Tea" itself is one of the more rambling, suite-like songs that works. Bitter Tea does indeed work well as a companion piece to Rehearsing My Choir, as well. The refrain of "once upon a time" in "Nevers" mirrors Choir's "Remember Then?," and "The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry" is a spooky, cryptic recitation of places and addresses along the lines of "Seven Silver Curses." Meanwhile, the backward vocals and instrumentation that make up one of Bitter Tea's main motifs could convey looking back on youth or rewinding time — or they could be there just because they sound really trippy. Anyone who enjoyed having their brains and ears rearranged by Blueberry Boat and Rehearsing My Choir should find Bitter Tea enjoyable, but at this point, it seems like the most challenging thing the Fiery Furnaces could do is trust their pop instincts a little more often.

Biography

Formed: 2000 in Brooklyn, NY

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '00s

Restless sonic chameleons the Fiery Furnaces revolve around the brother and sister duo of Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, whose prickly childhood relationship and musical family set the stage for their playful, unpredictable music. The Friedbergers' grandmother was a musician and choir director at a Greek Orthodox church near the family's home in Oak Park, IL; their mother, who had a penchant for Gilbert & Sullivan, played piano and guitar and sang; and throughout school, Matthew played standup...
Full bio
Bitter Tea, The Fiery Furnaces
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