I remember when The Fiery Furnaces first appeared, around the same time as The Strokes and all that lot a few years ago. There were loads of listings and reviews in which they were referred to by lazy hacks who hadn't heard them yet as an NYC garage-rock duo. Happily, this turned out not to be the case. They turned out to be the purveyors of a strange kind of mutant pop music, shot through with abstract impulses, a slightly stoned sensibility, riddled with tension and humour and never short of an idea or twenty. Their live show at the time was a sprawling medley of songs, mashed together into one long slow-burning multi-instrumental marathon.
They ran with this format on 2004's Blueberry Boat - a twisted, experimental alt-pop epic that marked a definite progression in their sound. Interim piano concept album (Rehearsing My Choir, 2005) notwithstanding, Bitter Tea pretty much picks up where Blueberry Boat left off. Chiming harpsichord and trademark backwards looping vocals weave through jarring, zig-zagging song structures, rattling strings and slide guitar, and that familiar ice hockey organ sound. The vocals are, as always, sung in a detached, disinterested style, with lyrics that are alternately Alice In Wonderland acid-trip abstract, then tales of suburban life and relationship woe.
But there's something impenetrable about it, an obtuse level of abstraction and a slightly joyless delivery that really leaves this listener with no point of entry at times. Where a truly brilliant record can take you to a completely different place, after listening to Bitter Tea I'm left feeling more like I'm squinting into a snow globe.
That said, there are several flashes of brilliance, and the landscape of shifting musical textures makes it worthwhile - if The Fiery Furnaces' style is something that you inherently like, I'm sure you'll love Bitter Tea from start to finish. But if, like me, you find yourself reacting to their music with just a removed sense of admiration, it may well leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth.
6John Brainlove's Score