Friday, June 02, 2006


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 2, 2006

The brother-and-sister team known as The Fiery Furnaces continues to amaze, delight, and occasionally confound unsuspecting listeners on its latest musical adventure, Bitter Tea.

Bitter Tea is an opportunity for writer/multi-instrumentalist/mad-genius-boy Matthew Friedberger to toss in everything plus a few kitchen sinks, while sister Eleanor Friedberger, the main Furnace singer, captivates and allures. Eleanor’s voice — sweet, clear, sometimes even a little prim — seems like an earthly anchor for a ship tossed along a stormy, unpredictable musical sea. (Strangely enough, the album was released on Fat Possum, once known as a hard-core blues label. Despite some wicked slide guitar in the song “Police Sweater Blood Vow,” I don’t think R.L Burnside done it this a way.)

The music changes from song to song — and often several times within a song. Electronic madness bounces off an old-timey tack piano.

While the Furnaces don’t really sound like anyone else, you could spend an afternoon trying to trace the influences.

“Waiting to Know You” could be doo-wop as filtered through The Flaming Lips. When “Oh Sweet Woods” gets going, it sounds like a mutated noir take on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” You might hear distant echoes of Brian Wilson’s Smile smirking here and there. There’s sugar-pie-honey-bunch Motown hooks beneath the electronic insanity of “Benton Harbor Blues” (though my favorite touch here is the Garth-Hudson-on-Pluto, roller-rinky organ sound that also colors the backdrop). Bouncy, Beatlesque touches abound — and tell me you don’t hear the spirit of Plastic Ono Band-era John Lennon in “Police Sweater Blood Vow.” And somewhere in the cosmos, Spike Jones smiles knowingly.

In interviews, the Furnaces have said that Bitter Tea is a companion piece to last year’s album, Rehearsing My Choir, a strange family-album kind of album featuring narration by the Friedbergers’ grandmother. While Choir dealt with the memories of an old woman, Bitter Tea is from the perspective of a young girl.

There are lyrical threads here dealing with innocence and its inevitable loss, temptation, sexual curiosity, and danger.

On the title song, the music is built around a faux-Oriental melody — think Madame Butterfly on angel dust. After a frantic synth introduction lasting about a minute, Eleanor pipes in, announcing: “I’ve got a special category business down by the Multifunctional Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Rollerblade Rink ...” After being tempted to drink the “bitter tea,” the music reverts back to a slow, rinky-tinkly version of the original melodic theme, as the Friedbergers sing, “I am a crazy crane/I lost my true love in the rain.”

This song melts into the next track, “Teach Me Sweetheart,” which begins with strange squiggly noises arising over a thumping bass line. Eleanor sounds downright sultry as she sings, “Come away, teach me sweetheart.” But the song swings from sensual to severe as the subject turns to her in-laws:

“My mother-in-law was standing by the stove/hissing like a snake, hissing like a snake ... She gave orders to spill my blood ...”

On “The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry,” the narrator seems to be aching for purity. She seeks solace in a wide variety of churches — and she lists them by name (and address!) :

“I went to the Right Road Ministry at 4801 S. Normandie. I went to the Armenian Brotherhood Bible Church at 5556 Harold Way ... the Iglesia Evangelica Rey de Reyes y Señor y Señores ... the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star and Kingdom of God in Faith at 3810 W. Slauson and I drove around listening to the Greater Bethany Tape Ministry ...”

(This song ends with Eleanor singing a series of telephone numbers. In a forum on a Furnaces fans’ Web site, someone called “todd” apparently called one of the numbers. He posted: “I called and a woman answered with a weak sounding ‘hello?’ and then i proceeded to ask if this was in fact the vietnamese telephone ministry, but she replied with ‘espanol!’ and i switched to my spanish asked her if she knew the fiery furnaces, and she said no ...”)

Sometimes the tempo and melody changes within a song are a little too abrupt for comfort and some of the studio trickery gets a little thick. (Maybe not so much backward vocals next time, OK guys?)

But overall, Bitter Tea confirms that the dreamlike sound of the Fiery Furnaces is some of the most interesting and strangely satisfying music being made these days.

Also Recommended:

Show Your Bones
by Yeah Yeah Yeahs. “Sometimes I think that I’m bigger than the sound,” Karen O shouts repeatedly as the refrain to the song “Cheated Hearts.” Is this a self-critical examination, a chastisement for putting her ego ahead of her band? Or is it a self-affirmation, a way to say that holding onto her real identity is more important than any rock ’n’ roll facade? As her voice rises, it seems more a realization than a question. She’s bigger than the sound!

But that sound is pretty big, too, and here on YYY’s second album, it’s gotten even bigger. This little trio from Brooklyn (since moved to Los Angeles) is making a noise that’s just as loud as before, but broader — more accessible and pop-conscious without losing the ragged appeal that made us love them in the first place.

Such a move is a gamble that some bands can’t survive. (Why am I having these sad visions of Big Brother & The Holding Company?) On the single “Gold Lion,” which opens the album, Karen sings about taking “our hands out of control.” It takes a worried gal to sing a worried song.

But I’m optimistic about Yeah Yeah Yeahs.The music is even more irresistible than ever. And even when they get all anthemy on the last song, “Turn Into,” guitarist Nick Zinner channels Joe Meek and cuts loose with a craze, strangled solo that references The Tornadoes’ “Telstar.”

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