Chicago’s Fiery Furnaces are prolific pop experimenters who’ve birthed five albums in fewer years. On Bitter Tea, sibling duo Eleanor and Matt Friedberger zigzag their way through 70 minutes of ambient, angular songs that merge deadpan, obfuscatory lyrics with envelope-pushing, trippy production, saloon-bar tinny piano and programmed beats. It’s certainly different – it’s not often I’d say that an album is like an Abba musical being performed in an echo chamber while on industrial strength narcotics. But that’s what Bitter Tea reminded me of, and there are other points in its favor.
Some of these songs are catchier than the clap, after all. There are perfect pop nuggets such as “Waiting to Know You,” which underscores a deceptively simple melody with a loping last-dance piano cycle and Moog notes that buzz in your ears like some kind of bassy mosquito. You’ve got to respect such dedication to envelope-pushing, especially in terms of production. This is the kind of record that defies pigeonholing.
That said, there are myriad bad points. For one, the album’s overly long, crammed with fragmentary ideas that hodgepodge together rather than developing. Eleanor’s detached delivery and grammatical posturing mean that the vocals sound contrived and emotionally cold. There are songs on here that are beyond irritating. “The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry” is a prime offender, with its endlessly discordant vocal swirlings and backwards swells. And, like the album, it’s long.
On the whole, Fiery Furnaces’ achievement here is the marriage of genuine experimentation and accessibility. For me, though, the vocal style is probably on top of the list of reasons I don’t actually particularly like the music. With apologies for the tea-based pun, this album is a bitter one to swallow.