CD Review of Bitter Tea by The Fiery Furnaces

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Bitter Tea
starstarstarno starno star Label: Fat Possum
Released: 2006
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No one is happier than I that the brother and sister duo of Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger decided to kick their grandmother out of the band. Okay... so Rehearsing My Choir, which featured a ton of spoken word from materfamilias Olga Sarantos, was a one-off experiment that failed horribly. Fortunately, the Furnaces are back to making music on their fourth full-length effort, Bitter Tea, but at times they still manage to get in their own way.

“Teach Me Sweetheart,” with its beautiful vocals and infectious chorus, has all the makings of a single along the lines of Rilo Kiley’s “Portions for Foxes,” but the intertwining guitar is challenging in a Beatles’ “Revolution #9” kind of way. “Benton Harbor Blues” is another would-be single, but its seven-minute-plus running time and headache-inducing intro keep it from fulfilling its potential. Even if these tracks aren’t singles, they are interesting in one way or another, which is true for pretty much every song on the album. At the same time, the duo gets distracted, such as the insertion of an ear-splitting siren towards the end of “Whistle Rapsody,” the trippy backwards-played vocals of “Nevers,” along with the grating keys present throughout most of the album that sound like they might have been lifted from a circus arcade in the early ‘80s.

Much of what works on Tea can be attributed to Eleanor, who has one of the prettiest voices in the indie rock world. When the duo reins in the musical oddness, as they did on their debut, Gallowsbird’s Bark, things really work. The two most straightforward tracks on Bitter Tea are “Waiting to Know You” and “Police Sweater Blood Vow,” which both yield yet another glimpse of the Furnaces’ considerable potential. Maybe they’re just too quirky to do it, but with all of their pop sensibilities, one wonders what would happen if they actually tried to write an accessible album.

~John Paulsen