Every time I buy a new record by The Fiery Furnaces, I’m never quite sure what to expect. They have quite a madcap sound and tracks constantly change in direction, which is sure to keep you on your toes. Despite this, though, their sound remains remarkably consistent from album to album (give or take the odd grandmother here and there). You certainly know it if you’re listening to The Fiery Furnaces.
A lot of people have said to me that they don’t understand why I like them, but it makes perfect sense to me. The Fiery Furnaces are one of my favourite bands, but I’ll admit that it’s perhaps an acquired taste. There probably aren’t many albums more polarising than ‘Rehearsing My Choir’. I say polarising, although I really mean that I bloody loved it and everybody else hated it.
I have to confess, though, that parts of ‘Rehearsing My Choir’ were a struggle to get into, particularly given Olga Sanatos’ rather off-putting voice. That is one advantage of The Fiery Furnaces’ new album, ‘Bitter Tea’. It is immediate. By the third listen I had rated every single track 5/5 on iTunes. It normally takes weeks for any album to do that for me. Of course, ratings may go down as well as up, but I really don’t see that happening. I simply can’t stop listening to this album. [Cliche alert] I would even go as far as to say that some tracks are instant classics.
So what’s in it? Well I said above that The Fiery Furnaces’ sound is very recognisable. But it does seem to gain a little extra depth as each album goes, and the particular characteristic of ‘Bitter Tea’ is lots of stuff (especially vocals) going backwards. At points you may as well be listening to it backwards.
A particularly dizzying track is ‘Nevers’ (where, incidentally, their familiar wordplay is probably most evident on this album), which almost starts off like an audio equivalent of a strobe light. You can just about follow it if you read the lyrics along with it, but where’s the fun in that? Other early favourites of mine include ‘Oh Sweet Woods’, with its gentle dance beat backing an immense wonky piano riff. There is also ‘Benton Harbor Blues’ — quite a sad song set to a driving and delightfully psychedelic Magic Roundabout-style tune.
I have to assure you that each and every track on this album is a winner. I just don’t understand how The Fiery Furnaces do it. There are only two of them (one of whom seems to carry the vast majority of songwriting responsibilities), yet they are churning these albums out at the rate of more than one per year. We’re only a quarter of the way through the year, and Matthew Friedberger apparently has a solo album lined up for later this year. You would think that quality control would be out of the window, but it definitely isn’t.
If I would have one complaint about ‘Bitter Tea’ it would be that it doesn’t quite feel rounded as an album. Although there is fantastic flow through the album, any of these tracks could have been the opener. ‘In My Little Thatched Hut’ is a fantastic track, but it doesn’t feel like the introduction to a fantastic album.
‘Whistle Rhapsody’ may be a brilliant closing track, except it’s not. Before the album is allowed to end we are treated to reprises of ‘Nevers’ and ‘Benton Harbor Blues’. I’m not really sure why — I’ve not been able to find out. Both of these reprises could be seen as stripped-back versions of the tracks that appear in the middle (really towards the end) of the album.
The reprise of ‘Nevers’ is certainly simpler, without the dizzying vocals of the original. The reprise of ‘Benton Harbor Blues’, meanwhile, is more flowing and doesn’t stall like the original. They might be a clue as to what they would sound like if they tried to be more radio-friendly. Then again, they might not. Who knows? The result of including these reprises is to make the album fizzle away with little fanfare. Even the closing fade happens quickly!
However, I should complain about the inclusion of magnificent songs, even if they are for a second time. Any negatives are very minor points. The bottom line here is that I love this album. It might not be quite as good as ‘Blueberry Boat‘, but that’s quite a high bar. As things stand, I will be amazed if a better album comes out this year.