It’s hard to be iconoclastic in indie rock, but the Fiery Furnaces have managed to become one of the most divisive bands around. Since their 2004 breakout album, Blueberry Boat, the brother/sister duo has released a full-length B-sides collection called EP, a mostly unlistenable album surrounding grating vocals courtesy of their aging grandmother, and now, Bitter Tea, yet another challenging set of songs that stand to piss off as many people as they please.
The Furnaces have become known for a very particular formula: they take apart the pop song template and shoddily paste it back together, usually adding extra annoying synthesizers. This makes for a seemingly endless jumble of disconnected riffs, some of which are excellent on their own, but most of which rarely flow together. To the band’s credit, it’s an adequate attempt at recreating the first few spastic albums by tropicalia heroes Os Mutantes. But the shifts are consistently jarring, like when ‘Waiting To Know You’ does a total 180 from a doo-wop ballad into an irrelevant power coda. Or when ‘Borneo’ decays from a playful adventure song into a downtempo saloon dirge.
And this is all before we slay the crap out of the elephant in the room: the backwards vocals on almost every track. Is this not the oldest, lamest trick in the book for bands that want to sound weird, even though they always come across sounding idiotic? It didn’t even work when the Beatles tried it; I don’t know why anyone’s still wasting their time.
Regardless, there are a few moments on Bitter Tea that are — dare I say — beyond just “listenable.” There’s ‘Oh Sweet Woods,’ a stomping disco track that’s only minimally interrupted by spells of obnoxious noise. Same goes for ‘Benton Harbor Blues’ and ‘Bitter Tea’. Both manage to stick close to one theme, which is quite a feat of self-restraint for the Friedberger siblings. But these tracks are also the most frustrating: they show that the pair could write fantastic songs, if only they would quit being so stubborn.