I've been trying to be "ready" to review this album; don't know if that adjective could ever apply to anything having to do with the Fiery Furnaces, so here it is. _Bitter Tea_ is another revelation from the Friedberger siblings & co. They return to the form they "honed" on _Blueberry Boat_, for a large part, while retaining some of the strategies of _Rehearsing My Choir_, specifically Matthew's extensive use of the tack piano, which gives the songs more of a vaudevilian feel than ever, which is especially entertaining when the chord progression sounds like something from a death metal song (you know, pulling off from an F to an E power chord, such as bands like Soundgarden, Ministry, Metallica are so fond of doing; imagine that on a parlor piano). It says on their website that they once more will be only guitar, drums, and bass on the road because the tack piano is way too much to lug around. It will certainly be a treat to hear the punkier versions of the songs on _Bitter Tea_ live (if indeed they come any where near your geographical area; keep your fingers crossed), as the FF's are great at interpreting themselves.
And that's what it seems they are all about, to a great extent: self-interpretation. The Friedberger's embark on little odysseys of their subconsciouses (and therefore ours). Where does this lyric come from?: "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" ("Teach Me Sweetheart"). Well, I'm not sure EXACTLY what Eleanor could be getting at here. We are in the realm of psychoanalysis on so many of these songs, making a comparison that a person made of this band on another page apt (that the Friedbergers are the best thing since the French surrealist Andre Breton). This also takes the FF's far away from yielding the casual listener instant rewards. Both the music and the lyrics are exceedingly difficult (not to mention Matthew's intentionally annoying and cheesy sound effects). But if a listener digs in to the songs and lets herself be provoked by the material, there is perhaps no richer band out there these days (or perhaps, even, ever--I mean we're talking about these guys being in the league of Captain Beefheart and Zappa for major league depth psychology weirdness). It's almost like classic psychoanalysis: if the patient doesn't have the patience to sit through the talking cure for what seems like forever, she may as well not bother. If you want the next easy fix that the pop market offers, don't bother with the Fiery Furnaces.
Perhaps a good quarter of the lyrics are back-masked here. Some of the songs seemingly contain no stable tonic or key. There's even an extensive and thorough deconstruction of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" here ("Oh Sweet Woods"; the FF's layer some phased beat-boxing and dissonant classical guitar over the key vamp of "Billie Jean"). Some of Matthew's sonic excursions recall what others have called the excesses of '70's progressive bands like King Crimson and Yes. And, like these bands, Fiery Furnaces just might break through with a little commercial success (but don't hold your breath--no emo market pandering here). "Benton Harbor Blues" comes in two versions here: the difficult version with weird noises and sonic digressions taking you away from the major-key melody. (Major key? Yes, for once). Then there's the three-minute pop radio version of it at the end. Believe it or not, this latter version of the song wouldn't even sound all that out of place on your local Adult Contemporary station. (Shudder? Not really). With "Benton Harbor Blues" it seems the FF's are grabbing their legacy. Eleanor sounds somewhat sentimental and troubled like Karen Carpenter. (As she often does, actually: "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"). There are often nostalgic lines like this in FF songs, but they are hardly ever backed by this kind of mellow groove, as they are on the last version. Call 'em the experimental, postmodern version of the Carpenters, maybe. Think more along the lines of that song that Sonic Youth did where Kim Gordon plays Karen Carpenter in heaven on _Goo_ ("Tunic"). This album is all disembodied, ethereal, and unnerving like that, with some breaks into clarity and harmony for good measure. Just like your own psyche, you'll never stop trying to figure it out, if only you let yourself go into the scarier regions of it for good, long stretches of time.