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The Fiery Furnaces
Bitter Tea

The Fiery Furnaces are back and boy did I miss them. Anyone who has heard Gallowsbird’s Bark knows that the Furnaces can make an album that’s both weird and poppy. Unfortunately, after all the hype surrounding that album, the band decided to throw everyone for a loop and release the schizophrenic indie-pop/prog rock album Blueberry Boat and the This American Life-oddity Rehearsing My Choir. Both albums were incredibly self-indulgent, and in the case of Rehearsing My Choir, unlistenable. The former featured songs that switched melodies and moods quicker than a kid with ADD switches TV channels, while the latter featured the duo’s grandmother, Olga Sarantos, croaking out stories of Old Chicago over the band’s carnival pop music.

Thankfully, Bitter Tea strikes a balance between the catchy garage rock of Gallowsbird’s Bark and the weirdness of their last two albums. On one hand, the band isn’t cycling through musical changes nearly as much, allowing repetition of melodies and verses; this allows the songs to actually get stuck in your head.

On the other hand, more than one song features backward vocals and loud synth stabs more familiar to techno fans than indie rockers. The Furnaces won’t ever let go of their experimental muse, but it’s nice to know they’re willing to throw us a bone.

Musically, Bitter Tea often sounds like Matthew Friedberger has been playing way too much old-school Nintendo. "I’m in no mood" mixes harpsichord, video game organs and disco synthesizers, while Eleanor sings about being too drunk "to get dressed for bed." The title track is full of melodies that will make old school Nintendo fans think "Level 5 on Ninja Gaiden." "Waiting To Know You" seriously sounds like an Atari waltz, with Eleanor playing the girl on the ship docks waiting for her true lover.

"The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry" is as weird as its title, featuring big bass drums, a screeching saxophone, backwards vocals and a minor-key melody you might hear on a Portishead album. It also veers the Furnaces into a new musical mood: paranoia. Since Blueberry Boat featured way too many songs that veered into precious territory, it’s nice to know the band can insert a little tension into their oeuvre.

When I posted a track from Bitter Tea on my MP3 blog, I wrote that I thought releasing a commercial and critical failure like Rehearsing My Choir allowed the band to slip off the radar for a bit and make an album that wasn’t going to be met with huge expectations from critics or their audience. And while this may not be the case since a lot of the songs on Bitter Tea were recorded during the same time as the Rehearsing

My Choir material, I think there’s something to be said for over-hyped bands and so-called musical saviors falling on their swords to get a little breathing room.

Imagine how Arcade Fire must feel knowing they have to deliver another album as monumental as Funeral. Since such a feat is nearly impossible, it’s cruel to saddle them with such a burden. Enough is enough for the This Band Will Save Your Life attitude. It’s just a lame line parroted by music critics desperate to make a movement out of a few good albums. Kudos to the Fiery Furnaces for proving failure is the best success.

You can read more of Daniel Krow’s music criticism on his blog: