At this point, it basically goes without saying that the Fiery Furnaces are not for everyone. Last year they felt obligated to push their reputation from "yet another recent eccentric indie band" to "the quintessential recent eccentric indie band" with Rehearsing My Choir, an instant slam dunk into the vault of conceptually fascinating records that are referenced more than they're actually played - right alongside the Flaming Lips' Zaireeka, Dylan's Self Portrait and, dare I recall it, Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. Even when irritating or unbearable to listen to, these were the sorts of albums over which hardcore music buffs and critics (especially the late, great Lester Bangs) absolutely loved to chit-chat, argue and wage war. The Friedberger siblings' newest creation, Bitter Tea, is neither as alienating as Rehearsing My Choir nor as delectably poppy as their gem-stuffed EP from earlier that same year. It also isn't as deliberate or definitive as their magnum opus, Blueberry Boat (and we really should be glad for that - reproducing that monster would border on self-parody). Instead, it's the first record of theirs that exists comfortably in the context of their prolificacy: jammed with ideas and tricks, easily recognizable in tonality and mood, arguably genius without being undeniably solid.
The roles of each of the siblings have grown more dynamic over the past four years, and while this record certainly coalesces better than the free-for-all that was their last album (winding, impenetrable stories and dialogue from Eleanor and her grandmother backed by haphazard baroque keyboards and a mishmash of studio tinkery from Matthew), the delicate tension between the two remains. Take opener "In My Little Thatched Hut," which clasps the listener's attention instantly with a tumbling bumblebee synth. The track's dizzying momentum dwindles like a jogger being handed a weight when Eleanor's dark, low-register murmur enters. It is, a few seconds in, the first paradox in a record that seems to be grounded in paradox. Eleanor's presence is too substantial and poignant to be mistaken for a goofy caricature acting out loony narratives, trading "course it wasn't long till I caught the croup, dawding on the drizzy deck of my majesty's sloop" for laments that "when I think back on all the wasted years, all the good cheer and all of the charm disappears." But even as Eleanor emerges a more relatable vocalist, Matthew's production antics on the album are his least organic yet.
To the duo's credit, the proverbial "jogger" never collapses, even when they seem to bombard it with contradiction and tortuous song structure. What, for instance, is the point of the single-chord key change at the end of the title track? The easy answer would be to make it an impossible record to ignore, but in the long run Matthew's philosophy on songwriting appears to be "what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger." So, to drag the metaphor to its logical extension, a jogger bearing weights is that much more unstoppable. This vibe is mostly apparent early in the record, which is strung together as a veritable romp through a quagmire of electronic gurgles, whirlwinds, spews and blasts. Eclectic, to be sure, and like nothing else in music today, but it all somehow feels oriented in a similar direction. This is the biggest change from the genre-tangled genius of Blueberry Boat, which managed to integrate disparate elements like ragtime, church organs and acoustic blues with disturbing grace; Bitter Tea tends, with a few exceptions ("Oh Sweet Woods" succesfully laces haunting Spanish arpeggios around a "Billie Jean" bassline) to twist bright instrumentation through bizarre melodies, most often evoking the East Asian tonality heard in the theme of "Quay Cur."
Still, the record's cohesive character doesn't render it monotonous. If anything, the initial run of songs is so mottled with ideas that casual listeners might be convinced it's a creative peak. But in terms of sheer listening gratification, it's also the biggest shock to one's system. So to prevent the album from being exhausting as a whole, a handful of songs are wisely stripped down to the basics. And unlike their bluesy-yarn-stoked debut Gallowsbird's Bark, bare-bones no longer implies a rootsy sound - the album's simplest morsels consist of a single, elegant electronic element. Rich dollops and interminable grooves gain a noteworthy presence towards the end, and since these tracks ("Teach Me Sweetheart," "I'm Waiting to Know You," "Nevers" and "Benton Harbor Blues") see the band stopping to smell the roses and letting their ideas speak for themselves without much adornment, they are some of the most soothing, inviting and glorious work the band has ever done, especially for the purposes of winding down the record. The separate versions of "Nevers" and "Benton Harbor Blues" each remove some factor that debatably hinders this effect - an unusual backwards-vocal alternation in the former and some meandering guitars through a squelchy wah-pedal in the latter. The two remixes close the album, so while Bitter Tea may exceed Blueberry Boat temporally, it's 72 minutes that far more listeners will opt to completely sit though.
There's a slew of bands throwing in their two cents about what where music should be heading these days, but even the most prominent prog-pop acts like Deerhoof have become strangely dogmatic about it. Their annual albums are an annual vote for a type of music that, for better or for worse, some people like more than others. Even indie cornerstone bands like Built to Spill are releasing new records that are great, sure, but also superfluous, good summaries of their discographies. It was intense curiosity and exploration, often at the expense of easy encapsulation, that made the likes of David Bowie and Lou Reed the greatest artistic voices. Bitter Tea is a remarkable record, full of great successes and great failures, but more importantly it is completely unprecedented and, in terms of the band's direction, willfully tentative. It's no album of the year, but it's the first of this year that seems to demand listeners to really debate, to take a side. Everyone should hear Bitter Tea, because presumably the Fieries aren't going to be remaking it for the next ten years. Did you just shrug? Defend that position!