If patience is a virtue, then it’s one you’ll need in spades if you have any hope of enjoying a Fiery Furnaces record. Over the course of their short but prolific careers, the Friedberger siblings have done their part to redefine what can rightly be considered pop music. From the schizophrenic epics of Blueberry Boat to the family-history lessons in Rehearsing My Choir, the members of the Fiery Furnaces have, for better or worse, forged their own musical path — a road fraught with complexity, lit by glimmers of brilliance. The journey continues with Bitter Tea, and the good news is that there’s nary a grandmother in sight. The bad news? Moments of genius are often undermined by excessive experimentation.
My relationship with the Fiery Furnaces’ catalog is convoluted to say the least. I’ve been openly critical of the members’ seemingly masturbatory, navel-gazing approach to music, but all the while I’ve been secretly rooting for them. Plain and simple, we need bands like the Fiery Furnaces, groups that aren’t afraid to push musical boundaries and take creative risks. Bitter Tea hasn’t forged the perfect marriage between accessibility and creativity that I’ve been pining for, but it shows that the Friedbergers are capable of it.
There’s no denying the genius of tracks such as “Oh Sweet Woods,” a hypnotic spoken-word kidnapping tale where Eleanor Friedberger occasionally takes a back seat and let’s the music do the talking: “They blew into their shirt microphones like this.” Unfortunately, for every “Oh Sweet Woods” there’s an equal “The Vietnamese Telephone Registry,” a plodding, nearly six-minute excursion of Matt Friedberger’s incomprehensible backward looping vocals and his sister seemingly listing off the addresses to random points of interest before repeating the phone number to the Vietnamese telephone registry.
A few misfires like that can be overlooked. The album’s true stumbling block lies in the Friedbergers’ inability to follow many of their ideas to any sort of logical conclusion. For the most part, Bitter Tea doesn’t consist of songs so much as it consists of dissonant song fragments fused together into sonic Frankenstein monsters. There’s no progression to speak of; songs simply careen wildly from one idea to the next. Many of these fleeting moments can be thrilling, but the rollercoaster ride wears me down before all’s said and done.
This, of course, alludes to another problem: The album’s just too damn long. With few exceptions, seventy minutes of music is far too much to stuff into a pop album, and with the Fiery Furnaces’ zig-zagging delivery, it feels like much more. It’s unfortunate, really; if they were to take the best ideas in Bitter Tea and flesh them out over a forty-minute album, I’d imagine it would be one of the best things we’d hear all year. Instead, we’re left with an over-bloated musical grab bag that’s less than the sum of its parts.
“Waiting to Know You” MP3 (Right Click Save As)
“Nevers” MP3 (Right Click Save As)
“Benton Harbor Blues” MP3 (Right Click Save As)Fat Possum Web site