The Fiery Furnaces

Bitter Tea

The Fiery Furnaces

“Bitter Tea”

(Fat Possum)

4 Stars



The press packet issued with “Bitter Tea,” the new album from art-rock sibling duo The Fiery Furnaces, contained a delightful little Easter egg: the transcript of an email written by Matthew Friedberger, the band’s lyricist and instrumentalist, to their publicist.

The email contains the most pretentious bit of prose ever committed to the page (or monitor). Since no summary of mine could capture the unmitigated pompousness of the offending passage, I quote it for you here:

“The record is meant to sound like a not quite 12 year old lapsed piano student girl’s version of the Black Sabbath or Birthday Party or Bauhaus or the Pil Flowers of Romance records she’s never actually heard, just overheard her older sister and her friends Talking About [sic] behind the slammed-shut bedroom door. The girl goes down and bangs on the piano in anger and boredom, singing of lost loves she never knew and world-weariness she never felt, etc. That is the scene or theater of this record.”

If you’re like me, which is to say a sane and reasonable person, that quote made you throw up in your mouth a little, and filled you with the strong desire to punch Mr. Freidberger in the throat.

Don’t. Despite my antipathy towards Matthew, “Bitter Tea” is a scarily brilliant album, and I’d hate to jeopardize chances of hearing any follow-up projects from The Furnaces.

Matthew’s description of the record, however pretentious, is spot on. Many of the album’s tracks recreate the faux-Satanic feel of classic Black Sabbath and Bauhaus. The Furnaces substitute creepy synthesizer effects for death metal power chords, but the results are equally ominous. The Furnaces even go so far as to record backmasked vocals on a handful of songs, recalling the urban myths about demonic subliminal messages in heavy metal music.

Unlike some of their influences, The Furnaces have a great sense of humor. On “Oh Sweet Woods,” Eleanor Friedberger—the band’s vocalist and Matthew’s little sister—sings of being kidnapped by fanatical Mormon missionaries.

Eleanor’s deadpan vocal performance heightens the absurdity of the events she recounts, and Matthew’s haunting acoustic guitar provides the perfect melodic background for her gonzo tale.

“Borneo,” the following track, is a jaunty ode to gambling addiction. Eleanor opines that she’s become “bored of her old life and decent odds” before stealing her roommates debit card, moving to Jakarta, and losing the deed to her boyfriend’s mother’s mansion in a high-stakes card game. The details of this larceny are recounted against the carefree jangle of Matthew’s showtune worthy keyboards.

The Furnaces aren’t all fun and games, however. The album’s strongest track, “Teach Me Sweetheart,” is a harrowing portrait of loneliness, sexual frustration, and paranoia. Eleanor sings from the perspective of a young widow wasting away in the loveless home of her deceased husband’s family. She invites “brave young bachelors” to rescue her from her isolation, and imagines that her relatives-in-law are plotting her murder. Eleanor’s vocal performance is raw and affecting. She has a limited vocal range, but her voice is so richly evocative that it hardly matters.

“Bitter Tea” is such a thoroughly enjoyable album I’m inclined to ignore its pretensions and just rock out.

Maybe that letter in the press packet was a joke—a little something to ruffle the feathers of overly analytical rock critics. I certainly hope so. I’d really like to enjoy this record without the taste of bile in my mouth.

—Reviewer Bernard L. Parham can be reached at parham@fas.harvard.edu.