The Fiery Furnaces

Bitter Tea

(Fat Possum; 2006)

By Amir Nezar | 11 May 2006

Writer’s preface: This is a long counter-point. Wanking is kept to a minimum, but a sufficient response to Christopher’s review necessitates some similarly thorough analytical argument. If you’re interested in that, or just hate the Fieries and need justification to offer to your friends, read on.

Head down, making sure to cover my bases, I write this review with the awareness of poo in the hands of some of my peers and the bulls-eye I’ve just about painted on myself from the moment I typed the numbers “6” and “5,” followed by that percentage symbol. If it misses me, I worry there’s a fan behind me.

But you know, the thing is, I don’t think I really deserve to be target practice (plus, I’m not the only one to find this album to be less than revelatory). Because I don’t hate the new Fiery Furnaces album. And you know, I didn’t hate Blueberry Boat (I took issue with those who inflated it to pop genius when it was uninteresting beyond its conceptual bearings). Fact is, the only album I can remember despising was the Liars’ em>They Were Wrong So We Drowned and that was because the band pretty explicitly explained, it in part, as a reaction to fans liking their first album. I disliked that album because it was willfully obscure and pretentious for the sake of willful obscurity (oh yeah, and it had no interesting musical ideas), and because it was one of those albums motivated by the insufferable urge to teach or punish the group’s fans.

Bitter Tea is no such album, and so couldn’t arouse my vitriol no matter what I thought of its musicianship. Fact is, I just think this album isn’t very good. Here’s why:

Creative conceptualism is not inherently good. Albums that challenge a listener do not yield brilliance by virtue of requiring personal/emotional/intellectual investment. One can invest time and effort into interpretation but come away with something unsatisfying. Cinematic examples, for me, include movies like Pi, the Russian film Avocations and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Musical examples include Blueberry Boat We Were Wrong So We Drowned, and The Runners Four. These are all instances where I followed closely, investigated as deeply as I could—to find that the apparent ocean I was plumbing was merely a puddle I was looking at too closely. I don’t cite them with arguments planned for them – that’s not the purpose of their invocation. Rather, I use them as examples so that I’m not merely making an abstract claim.

Interesting productions and arrangements, then, are not necessarily good ones. I’m glad Chris brought up Joyce’s work in relation to the album in his review, because it serves, in my case, to highlight a certain contrast. Joyce’s Ulysses uses obfuscation and obscurantism of style not as an experiment, but as a means of accessing certain more profound realizations. For instance, that the modes of literary obscurity used to describe Leopold Bloom’s movements, thoughts, and actions are mediations necessary to disguise the traumatic pain (consciousness hiding the pains of the unconscious) wrought on his psyche by two tragic events in his life, which are themselves interrelated across time: the death of his son, and the infidelity of his wife, whom he loves. Or that, as another instance, the various modes of style involved are used precisely because the effort to sustain a thorough psychological realism involves an understanding of the ways in which a character’s psychological perspective shifts given the interactions he experiences within the world outside of him; one cannot claim psychological realism while preserving a unified style to describe a character’s mind, since it goes through often-huge perspective-shifts that even a single day requires of him. These kinds of understandings justify Joyce’s difficulty because they are not only strikingly original, but unbelievably layered in the way they are wrought via allusive associations and linguistic performances.

Bitter Tea does not have claim to such hefty yields as justification of its strangeness. Like Ulysses, it does a good deal of mediation of pain via cartoonish elements and willy-nilly melodies. Chris makes a good point in dividing the first half of the album from its second – the first half is indeed its more painful half, psychologically distressed and ambivalent, and this certainly explains its jumpiness. The second half, the emergence into the outside world, leads to far more accessible pop, though it does not drown the stylistic nervousness of the first half. After all, an individual returning to the outside world retains some sense of that individuality, even as he or she emerges from him or herself. Some oddity, some fragmentary nature, must emerge out of the hut with Ellen Friedberger. It’s molded into slightly more linear pop, but retains a special character nonetheless.

This is all very, very clever. It’s not as easy to perceive as Mr. Alexander makes it sound, given the threshold of listener-involvement that one might normally expect out of pop. But that also makes the cleverness a little more special to unearth. All of us CMGers feel good for the unearthing. We throw a Rob Mitchum party with a sign outside that says, “We figured it out! We’re better than you!” Dom Sinacola and Mark Abraham, getting progressively more intoxicated, begin to experience schizophrenic breakdowns involving, it appears, Thunderegg. Dom begins to self-dissociate, and stomps on his own iPod.

But then Chet or Clay turns to me and says, “Wait. So we figured out the conceptual stuff. What exactly was enjoyable about this album? Were there any good songs in there?” Meanwhile, Kate, realizing she’s the only chick staffer in a progressively drunker and drunker room, begins to sidle towards the door.

Yes. There are good songs in here. They occur almost exclusively in the second half of the album. “Oh Sweet Woods” is wonderfully groovy. The mixture of jaded pathos and frenetic counterbalanced pace and squiggles of “Borneo” don’t overshadow the song’s charming dual melodies, which lead into a set of bars that are, smartly, built out of the track’s previous ideas. Wayne Coyne would mess his pants at the cleverly constructed melody, made of melded backwards-looped and direct vocals, that supports “Nevers.” It’s hardly intricate, but certainly coherent. “Benton Harbor Blues” fucks with melody-reversal, then rights the fuck-around, turning initial wank into stoned Sunday organ-led pleasantry that would have made Otis Redding smile at the white kids playing his game.

All that’s quite nice, in all seriousness, but not only are the melodic nuggets that illuminate the album’s second half not things of genius, they’re not even of incredibly high quality relative to other weird-pop acts. They’re clever, well put-together, and have their fair share of embellishments, but they’re just good. Their time-signatures are traditional pop ones, and their collusion of instruments becomes nearly typical in their recycling: piano, synth squiggles, traditional percussion, and organ show up over and over. “Untitled” is a meager remix of “Benton Harbor Blues,” which already permutes in “Benton Harbor Blues Again.” These are tracks begotten out of a competent pop sensibility that’s exercised too facilely. Alone they wouldn’t constitute, for this reviewer, more than a 72%.

Their case is not helped by their predecessors, whose anti-functionality as songs can be excused conceptually, perhaps, but nevertheless fail in terms of execution. Fundamentally, whether or not these first “songs” exercise some form of pain-mediation, or express an emotionally mimetic function, they are just too damned weak in their basic underdevelopment. Joyce mediated the pain of his characters with a whole web of linguistic exploration that ran as deep as it did wide. The Friedberger’s template here is far more simplistic. Yes, “In My Little Thatched Hut” speeds up its emotional anxiety with its sonic tempo, but since it’s just a four-note synth that gets sped up, any sense of compelling dynamic sputters on the rudimentary. What hurts most is that a brilliant bit of acoustic and piano melody, overlaid with synth squiggles, pops up at the song’s beleaguered mid-section as a brain-tease that the duo quash within a minute. Sure, traditionalism isn’t the point, but stringing together under-developed ideas wrought of painfully simple instrumentation and attaching a concept to the process doesn’t lend it artistic credibility, either.

Obfuscation (if we are so generous as to call it that in Bitter Tea’s case – maybe “trickery” is better?) is worthwhile if navigating the obfuscating shell (weird, disjointed segments) around a certain core conjures some manner of deep relational understanding related to that core (assuming there is one). Knick-knack synth jingles strung together cannot accomplish such an effect, unless one over-compensates for their ineffectiveness by attaching heavy exegetical abstractions to them. Interesting though such a strategy may be, one is nevertheless confronted with the fact of the basic haphazardness of them, and their superseding lack of depth. Nearly every song of the first half of the album victimizes its singular internal moment of inspiration with its surrounding, cartoonishly simplistic collage of pieces – the linking of which is almost necessarily made dubious by how spare they are in content. Even if content is form, the form is still flimsy.

And even if one were to find some over-riding link by brave interpretational effort, the consequent overwhelming imposition of personal subjective association says less about the quality of the music than the imaginative capabilities of the listener. Attributing artistic quality to a string of Rorschach tests because of the complex psychological and individual responses they encourage is highly dubious. Similarly, the collages that suffocate the interesting idea in each of Bitter Tea’s earlier songs (though “Teach Me Sweetheart” is a brilliantly notable exception) can’t be qualified as musically satisfying just because a listener must summon heavy interpretation to justify them. Expressed differently: if someone were to tell you, “this is noodly wank,” you’d have a difficult time pointing to the music and saying, without overly subjective and personally-associative intervention, “well, the music suggests otherwise.” What agreed-upon standard of musicianship, or even conceptual agreement, could you summon to make a decent case, beyond the flimsy, “It’s creative, and great for being creative”? They create interesting narrative story-arcs, yes. But if the music doesn’t hold up beneath them, then I’d rather just sit down and read, well, Joyce.

What some might conjecture, and it seems to me with good reason, is that Bitter Tea is a succession of toyed-with ideas that finds concrete satisfaction in a return to well-designed, pleasantly secure glitch-influenced pop (I say “toyed-with” because the absolutely fucking incessant backwards looping – meaningful at first, meaningless after pointless reiteration – is a picture-perfect instance of an artist saying, “Oooh! I’m going to use that in every song, ‘cuz it just sounds that cool!”). They might speculate that perhaps the prolificacy of the Friedbergers is not the outpouring of boundless pop talent, but rather, the inability to patiently construct pop with layers, leading to the unrestrained recording of a gamut of teasing, never really pleasing, ideas. They might say, and perhaps this would be their most incisive observation: while really great pop artists encourage revisiting listens by virtue of the depth of composition involved in each of their songs, the Friedbergers force repeated listens because their sheer overwhelming volume of material and ideas makes remembering or connecting the pieces therein nearly futile. Glue 72 minutes of fragments together, and you’re bound to hit amidst the sonic machine-gun fire. The con is, of course, that such a forcing of repeated listens can (and, if my argument seems reasonable, is in the case) based upon the illusion that one has missed something. After listening to the album for eight hours (the length of the album seems rather a tactic than any kind of necessary duration of vision), over and over again, one either has to sadly face up to the nakedness of the emperor, or by virtue of personal imagination begin to really believe that garments are covering that bare ass. That all that backwards looping really does have some sort of significance, that there is some overriding positive whole in which this stuff is involved.

Of course, by that point the associative effort of the imagination has developed itself to such an extent that it begins to impose meaning where there was a scant amount, and can never un-train itself to merely see the noodling as noodling. If the Friedbergers have a particular talent, it’s that you can’t really buy into an album of theirs and then buy back out. You make an investment, the album tells you you’ll earn interest. It keeps the investment indefinitely, and rather than believe you’ve just wasted it, you have to think that you’re getting paid. You just haven’t checked the right mental bank account. And so you create one. And it’s difficult to uncreate it. More likely, after you’ve done giving the album its due, the scant listens you’ll give to it afterwards will contribute towards the account fading. Less likely, you’ll hardly listen to it again, and still maintain that the account was worth setting up in the first place.

Here, to me, is the biggest irony: the Friedbergers are always assumed to have some singular pop talent that’s so magnificent that constructing “regular” pop would be too easy for them – but I have yet to see any wonderful “regular” pop from them. By my reckoning, the second half of Bitter Tea is not an instance of it – for reasons I’ve already gone into – and neither is pretty much anything they’ve done previous. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that if they could make a concerted album that focuses on layered depth rather than ADD panoramic stretch, it would absolutely trounce the supposed “epics” they’re in the habit of releasing.

Few people really wanted to give Amnesiac credit because it was “Kid A b-sides.” But the Friedbergers toss together a 73-minute monster of under-development in the same two year time span as several other releases, and it’s gold? If you ask me, what’s going on here is a casting about of ideas, hoping that a few attract a real bite. If only these kids knew that at some point, you have to sit down, apply yourself, and reel the hooks into a real catch or two. It’s time for them to do some work, rather than imposing all of it on us listeners. English-major story-lyrics and sketchy songs just aren’t enough; that’s what we reviewers do in our spare time, thank you very much.