Sometimes it's better when you just don't try to understand. This is definitely the case with The Fiery Furnaces. I've commented on the group before, first tackling the expansive, disjointed, and challenging Blueberry Boat, on which they created twisted epics filled with freakish guitar noodling, warm and hyperactive synthesizers, vocal performances from Eleanor Friedberger and her brother Matthew that used foreign language, pirate lore, silly puns, and nonsensical alliteration to tell stories only they could understand, all while changing tempos and moods mid-song at the drop of a hat enough times to make you think the album should have had over 40 tracks. Then they simplified for a bit, releasing some songs that didn't have a home on a record simply called EP, which had its brief bits of insanity, but also revealed that the group could be quite deft at crafting a pop hit when they wanted to (see "Here Comes the Summer" or the re-done "Tropical Ice-Land"). I decided to sit out the side-project-ish Rehearsing My Choir late last year, due to reports of the vocals (largely handles by the siblings' grandmother) being difficult to stomach. But this year, when the follow-up record Bitter Tea arrived, I figured it'd be a good time to take another trip through their (seemingly) acid-induced candy-land. Surprisingly, I'm finding it to be the most enjoyable record of theirs that I've heard so far.
What sets Bitter Tea apart from Blueberry Boat? Brevity, for one thing. That may not seem apparent at first, given that both records have 13 songs, and the songs on both records can sometimes meander and change moods without warning. But they've wisely offered the songs as (mostly) bite-size chunks this time around, so while there may not be something as dauntingly fun as "Quay Cur", there also isn't anything that drags on endlessly like "Chris Michaels" or "Mason City". (Well, maybe one song is like that, but I can usually forgive an album for one or two bad songs.) Very little of this - if any at all - is radio friendly, so don't get the idea that they shortened their average song length with the hope of scoring a few hit singles. It ain't gonna happen. But having said that, the imaginary radio in my head does often play large chunks of these songs on heavy rotation. They might not stick to a hook for an entire song, but they sure can come up with some strangely fun ones.
However, I think the biggest difference is that this record depends a lot more heavily on the sound of the piano than past albums, and a lot less on Matthew's guitar freakouts. You'll still get some warped moments where a guitar or some harsh electronics lash out at you, but there's a lot of jaunty saloon piano-type stuff to create a sense of continuity. Even though there are stretches during this album where I like the songs less, I can see that it all fits together a lot better than on previous albums, and yet every song has its own distinct motif. That makes it easier to go back, re-locate a snippet of a song that I found particularly engaging, remember the track that it belonged to, and re-listen to see if the entire thing is favorable as a full song. Many times, I'm happy to report that it is.
The downside to Bitter Tea is that, now that The Fiery Furnaces have gotten better at establishing strong hooks and memorable sections of their songs, they seem more determined to sabotage some of those great moments. There's a fine line between experimenting to keep your hooks/melodies from becoming too predictable, and deconstructing the joy you've given your listener until they realize it was a bit short-lived. I've managed to make a truce with the frequent shifts in mood and tempo, but what I really can't abide on this record is the liberal use of backmasking. You know, recording stuff and then playing it backwards. I usually think it's a cute gimmick when an artist uses this in a song or two - a little something for technically inclined music nerds to rip to their computer, play backwards, and bask in the sudden epiphany offered by a new clue. Bitter Tea seems to be obsessed with this technique, to the point where long sections of a few songs are devoted to backwards singing or talking, or even worse, a jumbled concoction of backwards and forward. They've failed to realize that this sort of thing works better as the texture of an aural painting than as the foreground. I've done my geeky duty and actually listened to this entire album in reverse just to see if it offered any clues or brilliantly reused snippets of stuff I'd recognize from the forward version, but none of what's being obscured here seems to be all that important.
As I've indicated above, meaning isn't the band's #1 priority - they're probably just in love with the sounds they can create through backmasking, just as they're infatuated with the way certain grammatical structures can sound when you cram words together that resemble each other but don't make a whole lot of sense. I like to get lost in a weird aural landscape sometimes, but when I feel like I'm supposed to be paying attention to something that they've gone to great lengths to obfuscate, I tend to get frustrated. These guys oughta learn how to use their gimmicks sparingly, and how to let a good song be a good song without having to scribble all over it every single time.
But that's modern art for you. Better to be accused of being too creative, than not creative enough.
In My Little Thatched Hut
I'll go to the flower stall
And get a violet to put in my jet black hair
And make him tell me which one is the more fair...
The album's lead-off track definitely sets the mood for the album, with its blurting synths, tribal drums, slightly mad piano chords, and its schizophrenic tempos. These are all used in various combinations as Eleanor describes herself as some sort of Indian princess, waiting in her hut for her true love to "come rowing in his rowboat back". It's kind of an awkward start, to tell the truth, but there are bits and pieces of a really fun song here. It would flow better if the band hadn't felt the need to take a break for one of their many backmasked sections.
I'm in No Mood
I was so drunk last night, I didn't even undress for bed
And I swear the pin in my hair got stuck in my head...
This one stands out as a memorable track almost immediately due to the rapid-fire plinking of piano keys that follows the main vocal melody, and the urgent, repeated line that Eleanor sings over it: "I'm in no mood to cut my hair. There's a chill in the air, it's catching!" The way she sings "catching" makes it sound like she's practically sneezing out the word, which is humorous when repeated, especially since the piano is quickly jumping between its high and low notes as she does this. The problem is that since there are so few lyrics, the gag gets old after about a minute and a half, which means the song doesn't pack as much punch as it could have. I'm somewhat amused at how Matthew is singing the "verse" backward as Eleanor sings it forward at one point, and they're tricky enough to even use the melody from the album's next song as a bit of a bridge before diving back into the madcap chorus, but this one still feels like it's only half a song.
Take your sheet metal shears
Cut a slit up the side of my dark blue dress
For a last time lie your love confess...
The most obvious piece of this album's semi-false start is this slow-trudging number, which has a lovely, mournful melody to it as Eleanor sings about the strange, cruel things that she's asking some boy to do to her - the synths have a special twinkle that keeps the song from getting to dragged down, and there are moments where the backward stuff creates an interesting wash of sound. The main problem here is that they sustain the song - especially the backwards section - for far too long. I don't mind the changing tempos so much when they're all medium-to-fast tempos, but here we get brief flashes of speedy excitement in between stretches of slow drudgery.
I think you're curious
Yes, you're curious
A little curious
About what the osmanthus blossoms taste like...
As the jaunty piano interlude at the end of "Black-Hearted Boy" takes an interesting turn and mimics more of an Asian-sounding melody, we suddenly transition into this glitch electronic number, which takes the band on a strange flight to somewhere in the Orient, with a punchy little melody that just makes you want to jab at something with chopsticks. This is by far my favorite track on the album - it has its unexpected turns and occasional drops in tempo (so that Matthew can sing strange things over an acoustic guitar about a banyan tree looking down at him), but Eleanor's ramblings about the strange overseas business she's set up are a fit of inspired wackiness. Mostly, I enjoy how the song goes from its light, bouncy verses to its fuzzed-out, psychedlic guitar romp interlude and back. The silly electronic intro is reprised near the end, before falling off into a lovely, quiet, synthetic interlude in which the siblings sing in unison, slowing down the melody from that madcap intro and lamenting: "I am a crazy crane, I lost my true love in the rain."
Teach Me Sweetheart
My mother in law was standing by the stove
Hissing like a snake, hissing like a snake, hissing like a snake
She gave orders to spill my blood
She gave orders to spill my blood, I thought...
I love this song's spaced out verses, where the electric guitar is crying out one single, whimpered note at a time, the drums are bouncing back and forth between speakers in an extremely detached fashion, and kaleidoscopic electronic sounds are whirling about in the background. It suddenly gallops into more of a conventional rock approach for the refrain, so there's a nice balance between styles which for once doesn't require drastic tempo changes. The great thing is that Eleanor's pleading with her "sweetheart" to come away and save her from being alone, and it sounds like such a romantic and serious plea until she starts revealing that her various in-laws are behaving like animals and secretly plotting to kill her. The song runs a bit long since there are four in-laws to be addressed, but it caps off nicely with some Halloween-ish organ playing, a weird synthesizer solo, and a verse dedicated to that fourth and final family member.
Waiting to Know You
And when I'm about to give up hope
But nope, with my telescope
I'm standing guard the navy yard
To see, could there one for me be?
As fun as the experimentation can be, this is one of those songs that makes me think the Friedbergers should exercise a little more restraint in terms of the desire to let their songs jump around between several moods. This one's fairly conventional by Furnaces standards - it's a twinkling piano waltz, humorously fueled by what sounds like human beatboxing in 3/4 time, and here we find Eleanor hanging out by the docks, keeping watch for cute marines or something. It's got a romantic but whimsical tone, and it actually allows you to enjoy the playful rhythm and melody for the bulk of the song, before speeding it up a tad at the end just so the piano can do its little delirious dance as a sort of finale. "Conventional" doesn't have to be a bad thing when the convention you've set up for a song is an interesting one, and I think they've come up with a beautiful piece that could probably play favorably to someone who wasn't used to all of the Furnaces' weird quirks.
The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry
I thought myself an unworthy thing
Despairing of my case all the time, boys...
Speaking of weird quirks, this song seems to want to throw all of the weird ideas that this band has at a wall and see which of 'em stick. Calling it a "song" is a bit of a stretch, as it sounds a lot more like random snippets of music thrown into a blender set to liquidate. It starts innocently enough with the strum of an acoustic guitar and Eleanor saying, "Damn it all, damn it all...", but then it flips back around = "...lla ti nmad, lla ti nmaD", and suddenly we've got the persistent clack-clack of percussion, backwards piano notes running up and down the scale, and repeated lyrical bits from Eleanor and Matthew (both backwards and forwards) flying around in an unholy tornado of sound for several minutes. Eleanor sounds like she's got the structure for an actual song as she sings here and there about her own worthiness and needing some boy to preserve her and save her, and there's that repeated line, "Damn it all, damn it all to hell", but the rest is insufferable nonsense. At about the halfway mark, this all goes the way in a flurry of sped-up electronic fireflies, and Eleanor begins to rattle off a string of "I went here and then did this"-type incidents involving various churches and cathedrals at addresses which sound like they'd be in the Los Angeles area. This ends with her declaring that she finally chose to call the Vietnamese Telephone Ministry at 323-221-7625... and there's our lame religious pun for this album! Get it? "Ministry"? (Somehow I greatly preferred "My Dog Was Lost But Now He's Found.) It all ends up at a reversal of the near-audio palindrome that opened the song, and then thank God, the torture is over.
Oh Sweet Woods
And then they drove me to an Albertson's outside of Boise
And took me into a back room
And they said they wanted to balance my checkbook
And they said they wanted to organize my receipts...
This is another song that is more narrated than sung, but thankfully there's a bit more structure and some actual snippets of memorable music to hang on to. Plus, I find Eleanor's storytelling here to be humorous rather than idiotic like the last song. As a beautiful, flowing acoustic guitar melody slowly melts into a mellow but streetwise electronic beat (complete with programmed handclaps!), Eleanor starts to ramble on about this one time that she was kidnapped and questioned my Mormons, who are after an artifact that belonged to some random relative of Joseph Smith. Sounds pretty stupid, but what's great here is the delivery. She talks about the guys whispering into their microphones and then you hear some sort of whispered beatboxing. She spits out a string of family relations when talking about this long-lost relative of the Mormon's founding father, and then adds one more for good measure just when you think she's done. And her response to this insane interrogation? "You've got the wrong Eleanor Friedberger." Cracks me up every time! There are a couple of weird, noise-laden freakouts that threaten to drag the song down at times, but for the most part I think it's an ingenious concoction.
We bribed a CFO at Siemens Cibinong to get them to buy a 40% stake
And we got a 5 million dollar order from Nieman Marcus
Which we filled about 10%
But I did sell them my children's book...
The Friedbergers sure love their far Eastern locales, I'll say that much. Actually, this madcap story, which eventually takes us to South Sumatra but gets there by way of the Cayman Islands and a roommate's misplaced debit card, feels like what you'd get if you took an epic story such a "Blueberry Boat" and forced them to recap it in about three minutes. So you get a lot of lyrics flying by, and flurries of synths and drums and all that, which is pretty amusing. It's all a bit of a shaggy dog story, which eventually slows down as the story starts to get really sad (but in a funny way), but it's a blast when the band is plowing full speed ahead and your mind is still two lines behind, asking, "Wait, what are they talking about here?" Yes, she really did gamble using her roommate's debit card and use the winnings to start a multi-million dollar business, only to slack off and hardly get anything done. And it's hilarious.
Police Sweater Blood Vow
Forget the dogs and forget the sheep
It's only you who affects me
On the fun fair track road, a helter skelter fall
On my ice skater's bruised knees...
This is another track that flies by in a fairly brief amount of time, sticking mostly to its upbeat rhythm and jaunty piano playing but offering a detour here and there. The lyrics are kind of all over the place, so I can't really guess at a meaning (like that even matters with these guys?), but I will say that the chorus seems to reaffirm the band's love for cell phones, as it consists of the lyrics, "Vibrate, buzz buzz, ring and beep, tell me babe, what time is it now?" The rhythm inherent in the delivery of those words is what sells that chorus. The rest of it... okay, whatever guys.
In an index looked up Where-It-Was, exactly where it was
Just in fact to make sure I can't
Set a course straight through to where it ain't, and where it ain't
Ain't gotten to except at a slant...
Here's a song that takes a perfectly enjoyable backbeat and an amusing lyrical style that probably owes a lot to Dr. Seuss, and totally screws the whole thing up by toying around with the recorded vocals way too much. Aside from the occasional straightforwardly-played verse, good luck making out any of these words, as Eleanor and Matthew seem to be trading off lyrics, one word at a time, with several of the words reversed or otherwise mangled. You can make out a consistent tune, but beyond that, it's a lot of maddening gibberish. And when the guitars get cranked up, they veer off into electronically chewed-up sonic hell, too. Catchy tune, but it's a good example of how the Furnaces overthink things and sabotage otherwise good songs.
Benton Harbor Blues
As I try to fill all of my empty days
I stumble round on through my memory's maze
Of all my past, only the sadness stays...
This track - the album's longest - is another fairly catchy, easygoing song which gets majorly effed up by too much tinkering. The programmed beat and slightly playful organ melody (which sounds an awful lot like that song "Come On Eileen", now that I think about it) really linger in the brain, and Eleanor's sad musings as she wanders around lonely streets on a cold day are some of the most straightforwardly honest lyrics that the band has penned to date, sidestepping the random pop culture references and puns and wordplay and whatnot and just admitting, "You know what, I'm sad right now." And I'd be able to latch on and empathize with that emotion if not for all of the distractions - the clattering programming at the beginning, the fadeout after the initial rhythm and melody get going that comes back as more sped-up mayhem before settling back into the actual song, and the irritating guitar feedback that lingers like a haze, interrupting Eleanor mid-verse as she says, "But when I think back..." Hey, I get it, your thoughts wandered for a minute there. But just 'cause I get it don't mean it's funny. And it doesn't make much sense to throw in such extraneous garbage to stretch an already lengthy song out to seven minutes.
Identifying with the unfamiliar
Contemptuously turns her back on the wicked world
With its vulgar delusions and correspondingly scorns its regard...
Matthew hasn't sung as much on this album - just some side comments here and there and a lot of backward stuff. So it's nice to hear him take the mic for a full song, in which he tells a strange tale about "an isolated old lady" - possibly this character that Eleanor plays, who has grown much older, whose true love never came back on his rowboat or naval vessel or whatever, and who regrets the years she squandered doing a whole lot of nothing. There's an almost macabre sound to the song's melody, as he slowly pines away over the descending chords, only to find himself gradually ascending a simple scale of notes on the bridge, until finally arriving at one big, climactic... fire alarm. I mean, OUCH! There oughta be laws against putting a sound like that on a CD - it scared the hell out of me the first two times when I heard it, threw down my headphones, and started to evacuate the building, only to realize the sound had been coming from my speakers. NOT FUNNY. The record concludes with a bit of manic playing and more of Matthews patented guitar freakout stuff as everything fades out and we're left to wonder what the hell we just heard.
Interestingly, the Furnaces seem to have acknowledge that they might have pushed the envelope too much with a few of these tracks, by way of two alternate takes tacked on at the end. This one finds "Nevers" sounding a lot more normal, happily freed from the mirror maze that original one was caught in, so that we can actually understand the lyrics. Not that they makes much sense, mind you - Eleanor's singing about a town called "Nevers", and to describe it, she states the following: "Never was it weren't what it were." But that sort of wordplay just rolls off her tongue so well that it somehow works for me. I love how the siblings' search for these nonsensically-named places ends in a realization of why they can't find them: "And then it hits me - slap! I left it off my map!"
Benton Harbor Blues (Edit)
As if to honor my request to just stick to the song and stop screwing around, the album's saddest song is reprised here, minus all of the goofy studio w*nkery. Thanks, guys! Any chance we can hear what the rest of the album sounded like before you went and taped snippets from old Frank Zappa records over parts of it?
Nah, just kidding. A few of these songs are just fine the way they are, weirdness and all. This might not be a perfect record, but the group has figured out how to string their experiments together in a way that (mostly) plays well as a unified album instead of becoming tedious like Blueberry Boat did towards the end. Despite the moments that hurt my ears, I find myself putting this one on a lot to get my spirits up on a particularly long and tedious workday, and part of the fun there lies in the fact that I'll always notice something new on a Fiery Furnaces record. I'd recommend Bitter Tea to adventurous listeners who enjoy similar close listening and can be patient when having their ears blasted by the occasional offensive noise or tempo change that yanks you out of a groove that you were enjoying, but I'd recommend that most folks who are new to the Fiery Furnaces start with their EP and go from there.
In My Little Thatched Hut $.50
I'm in No Mood $1
Black Hearted Boy $0
Bitter Tea $2
Teach Me Sweetheart $1.50
Waiting to Know You $1.50
The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry -$.50
Oh Sweet Woods $1.50
Police Sweater Blood Vow $.50
Benton Harbor Blues $.50
Whistle Rhapsody? $.50
Nevers (Edit) $1.50
Benton Harbor Blues (Edit) $1
Eleanor Friedberger: Lead vocals, guitar
Matt Friedberger: Vocals, guitar, piano, synth, organ
Toshi Yano: Bass, synthesizer
Andy Knowles: Drums
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