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Originaire de Chicago et désormais installé à New York, le duo frère-soeur Eleanor et Matthew Friedberger, alias THE FIERY FURNACES, nous livre son nouvel album Bitter Tea. THE FIERY FURNACES sont de véritables caméléons. Entre mélodies pop et délires rock psychédélique, nos deux compères sont joueurs, culottés, aventureux et divertissants : la voix chaleureuse d'Eleonor et les claviers expérimentaux de Matt nous offrent des phrases mélodiques élaborées et des retournements musicaux, le tout orchestré par une production impeccable
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And that's what it seems they are all about, to a great extent: self-interpretation. The Friedberger's embark on little odysseys of their subconsciouses (and therefore ours). Where does this lyric come from?: "My mother in law was standing by the stove/ hissing like a snake, hissing like a snake,/ hissing like a snake./ She gave orders to spill my blood;/ she gave orders/ to spill my blood, I thought" ("Teach Me Sweetheart"). Well, I'm not sure EXACTLY what Eleanor could be getting at here. We are in the realm of psychoanalysis on so many of these songs, making a comparison that a person made of this band on another page apt (that the Friedbergers are the best thing since the French surrealist Andre Breton). This also takes the FF's far away from yielding the casual listener instant rewards. Both the music and the lyrics are exceedingly difficult (not to mention Matthew's intentionally annoying and cheesy sound effects). But if a listener digs in to the songs and lets herself be provoked by the material, there is perhaps no richer band out there these days (or perhaps, even, ever--I mean we're talking about these guys being in the league of Captain Beefheart and Zappa for major league depth psychology weirdness). It's almost like classic psychoanalysis: if the patient doesn't have the patience to sit through the talking cure for what seems like forever, she may as well not bother. If you want the next easy fix that the pop market offers, don't bother with the Fiery Furnaces.
Perhaps a good quarter of the lyrics are back-masked here. Some of the songs seemingly contain no stable tonic or key. There's even an extensive and thorough deconstruction of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" here ("Oh Sweet Woods"; the FF's layer some phased beat-boxing and dissonant classical guitar over the key vamp of "Billie Jean"). Some of Matthew's sonic excursions recall what others have called the excesses of '70's progressive bands like King Crimson and Yes. And, like these bands, Fiery Furnaces just might break through with a little commercial success (but don't hold your breath--no emo market pandering here). "Benton Harbor Blues" comes in two versions here: the difficult version with weird noises and sonic digressions taking you away from the major-key melody. (Major key? Yes, for once). Then there's the three-minute pop radio version of it at the end. Believe it or not, this latter version of the song wouldn't even sound all that out of place on your local Adult Contemporary station. (Shudder? Not really). With "Benton Harbor Blues" it seems the FF's are grabbing their legacy. Eleanor sounds somewhat sentimental and troubled like Karen Carpenter. (As she often does, actually: "As I try to fill all of my empty days,/ I stumble round on through my memory's maze:/ of all my past, only the sadness stays"). There are often nostalgic lines like this in FF songs, but they are hardly ever backed by this kind of mellow groove, as they are on the last version. Call 'em the experimental, postmodern version of the Carpenters, maybe. Think more along the lines of that song that Sonic Youth did where Kim Gordon plays Karen Carpenter in heaven on _Goo_ ("Tunic"). This album is all disembodied, ethereal, and unnerving like that, with some breaks into clarity and harmony for good measure. Just like your own psyche, you'll never stop trying to figure it out, if only you let yourself go into the scarier regions of it for good, long stretches of time.
This album has a less organic feel than their previous work, suggesting that Matt and Eleanor Friedberger are seeing what they are capable of. But their music hasn't changed too much: bizarre dance melodies, oddball songs and psychedelic slashing all make this an intoxicatingly weird experience.
It starts off with one of their best songs: the "Little Thatched Hut," with its sinuous dance beat, joined in by piano and acoustic guitar. But it doesn't stay static -- I don't think the siblings could stay musically still that long. The song explodes suddenly into bursts of electronic swoosh, tribal beats, and what sounds like a keyboard being strangled.
This sound continues over several other, full of electronic fuzzling between energetic piano and mellow acoustic guitar. And they also harken back to the Furnaces' previous albums, with "Benton Harbor Blues" sounding like a charming B-Side from their second album, and "Teach Me Sweetheart" is a charmingly muddled (and kind of gruesome) love ballad. Lots of bloodthirsty relatives!
But the Fiery Furnaces try out some new sounds as well, as several songs are more electronic-based than their prior work. The title track is a real rock song, and it's pretty dense and psychedelic. Elaborate swooshes, explosions of synth and wacky little samples are all laid over a dancey melody that is as infectious as it is bizarre. Though it's less organic, it's recognizably a Furnaces song.
Even after five albums, the Fiery Furnaces still don't get the recognition they deserve. Not only are they prolific and talented, but they also evolve and experiment more than any other band I know of. Piano-rock? Check! Seaside rock opera? Check! Random singles better than anything on the radio? Check! Grandma-centric concept album? Check!
But no matter what they do, their music always sounds like an old quaint music-hall being invaded by a crazed circus. Don't worry, the piano and guitar are still here, along with weird unidentifiable noises and vocal beatboxing. But there's a heavier amount of keyboard and electronic elements, which don't add much to the music, but do make it sound even odder.
And the siblings also produce the weirdest lyrics imaginable. Only these two could devote a song to defiantly leaving your hair uncombed. But Eleanor gamely explores loneliness, hope for love, and word games ("Knew Nevers? Nothing never I'll ever learnt!"). May they never get more commercial, and leave behind their songs about bitter tea, banyan trees, and crazy cranes in love.
The Fiery Furnaces add some keyboard bubbles to their glorious oddball pop, and "Bitter Tea" ends up being bittersweet. Thankfully, they are back on top of their game.
The roles of each of the siblings have grown more dynamic over the past four years, and while this record certainly coalesces better than the free-for-all that was their last album (winding, impenetrable stories and dialogue from Eleanor and her grandmother backed by haphazard baroque keyboards and a mishmash of studio tinkery from Matthew), the delicate tension between the two remains. Take opener "In My Little Thatched Hut," which clasps the listener's attention instantly with a tumbling bumblebee synth. The track's dizzying momentum dwindles like a jogger being handed a weight when Eleanor's dark, low-register murmur enters. It is, a few seconds in, the first paradox in a record that seems to be grounded in paradox. Eleanor's presence is too substantial and poignant to be mistaken for a goofy caricature acting out loony narratives, trading "course it wasn't long till I caught the croup, dawding on the drizzy deck of my majesty's sloop" for laments that "when I think back on all the wasted years, all the good cheer and all of the charm disappears." But even as Eleanor emerges a more relatable vocalist, Matthew's production antics on the album are his least organic yet.
To the duo's credit, the proverbial "jogger" never collapses, even when they seem to bombard it with contradiction and tortuous song structure. What, for instance, is the point of the single-chord key change at the end of the title track? The easy answer would be to make it an impossible record to ignore, but in the long run Matthew's philosophy on songwriting appears to be "what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger." So, to drag the metaphor to its logical extension, a jogger bearing weights is that much more unstoppable. This vibe is mostly apparent early in the record, which is strung together as a veritable romp through a quagmire of electronic gurgles, whirlwinds, spews and blasts. Eclectic, to be sure, and like nothing else in music today, but it all somehow feels oriented in a similar direction. This is the biggest change from the genre-tangled genius of Blueberry Boat, which managed to integrate disparate elements like ragtime, church organs and acoustic blues with disturbing grace; Bitter Tea tends, with a few exceptions ("Oh Sweet Woods" succesfully laces haunting Spanish arpeggios around a "Billie Jean" bassline) to twist bright instrumentation through bizarre melodies, most often evoking the East Asian tonality heard in the theme of "Quay Cur."
Still, the record's cohesive character doesn't render it monotonous. If anything, the initial run of songs is so mottled with ideas that casual listeners might be convinced it's a creative peak. But in terms of sheer listening gratification, it's also the biggest shock to one's system. So to prevent the album from being exhausting as a whole, a handful of songs are wisely stripped down to the basics. And unlike their bluesy-yarn-stoked debut Gallowsbird's Bark, bare-bones no longer implies a rootsy sound - the album's simplest morsels consist of a single, elegant electronic element. Rich dollops and interminable grooves gain a noteworthy presence towards the end, and since these tracks ("Teach Me Sweetheart," "I'm Waiting to Know You," "Nevers" and "Benton Harbor Blues") see the band stopping to smell the roses and letting their ideas speak for themselves without much adornment, they are some of the most soothing, inviting and glorious work the band has ever done, especially for the purposes of winding down the record. The separate versions of "Nevers" and "Benton Harbor Blues" each remove some factor that debatably hinders this effect - an unusual backwards-vocal alternation in the former and some meandering guitars through a squelchy wah-pedal in the latter. The two remixes close the album, so while Bitter Tea may exceed Blueberry Boat temporally, it's 72 minutes that far more listeners will opt to completely sit though.
There's a slew of bands throwing in their two cents about what where music should be heading these days, but even the most prominent prog-pop acts like Deerhoof have become strangely dogmatic about it. Their annual albums are an annual vote for a type of music that, for better or for worse, some people like more than others. Even indie cornerstone bands like Built to Spill are releasing new records that are great, sure, but also superfluous, good summaries of their discographies. It was intense curiosity and exploration, often at the expense of easy encapsulation, that made the likes of David Bowie and Lou Reed the greatest artistic voices. Bitter Tea is a remarkable record, full of great successes and great failures, but more importantly it is completely unprecedented and, in terms of the band's direction, willfully tentative. It's no album of the year, but it's the first of this year that seems to demand listeners to really debate, to take a side. Everyone should hear Bitter Tea, because presumably the Fieries aren't going to be remaking it for the next ten years. Did you just shrug? Defend that position!
FF writes their own rules. There is a surreal-logic to their music. Their music is a dialectic between the organization and disorganization, repetition and disruption, the familiar and the unfamiliar. If you listen, you'll start to figure out when to expect a new rhythm/melody to interrupt the song. A FF song is really a discontinuous combobulation of about five songs woven together, a mix and match of different sets of completely different textures.
When listening to FF, you are in the circus or in "Amelia" or with your aunt in the kitchen baking cookies (or in this case, brewing tea). What's amazing is their ability to evoke colors and moods through their symphonic noise-clashing (synesthesia). It's really a wide range of experiences, which is probably why they thought they had the ability to recreate a whole life through their grandmother's biographic reminiscences on their previous album. Patterns include: tempo change, the trio of vocals on computer noise on acoustics, many times pounding out the same melody, and quasi-non-sense lyrics.
You'll have to decide for yourself what FF is trying to do with their lyrics. In "Black-Heart Boy" for instance:
"Darling black-hearted boy,
All the color's gone out of my ribbon loom
As I've only got the worst to assume.
Take your sheet metal sheers;
Cut a slit up the side of my dark blue dress;
For a last time lie your love confess."
This is Gertrude Stein put to music. Combine this with their dream-like, disorienting plethora of sounds, and you've got the irresistible, un-reproducible music of FF.
In Bitter Tea, they do what they do well, but with even more balls (bad metaphor). A lot of fans were put off by Rehearsing My Choir, a tribute to their grandmother-the complaint being that the album offered no pop potential, and certainly, none of the tracks package well for your Ipod. But if that's why you're listening to FF, then you're listening for the wrong reasons.
At any rate, I feel like Bitter Tea is a counter-balancing effort. In this album, they daringly blare out innovatively distorted sound effects, generously laid over everything. Part of the genius of their formula is that their sound never really gets "off the ground," at their peak points they sound like they are in their garage, cranking up as many instruments as possible, but are running out of hands. They probably never have more than a half-dozen instruments or sound-effects going simultaneously. What I really like about Bitter Tea is their willingness to experiment with these even quirkier and more dissonant interjections. At the same time, they are "apologizing" for the Joycean ocean of Rehearsing My Choir project. This CD, by contrast, gives listeners what they want as consumers: a nice continuity from one track to the next. But that's about all you can expect. They are out to play off all your other expectations.