The Fiery Furnaces

Bitter Tea

(Fat Possum; 2006)

By Christopher Alexander | 26 April 2006

The greatest musical genius of the twentieth century wasn’t LaMonte Young, or Bob Dylan, or Moondog the Sixth Avenue Viking (close, though). No, it’s the guy who did sound for Bugs Bunny. Stealing liberally from 1930’s bandleader Raymond Scott (Warner Bros. bought the rights to Scott’s publishing for a handsome sum), Carl Stalling fleshed out the lunacy of the, erm, Looney Tunes and bought them to vivid life. Phrases started and suddenly stopped, skunks fell down the stairs as ten fists banged a piano, musical in jokes abounded, conventional meter was tossed aside as a matter of course. Thanks especially to Scott’s gonzo musical phrasing, Stalling made those cartoons breathe, sweat, and fuck. Surely, if cartoon characters could write music—what, in a world where an anvil dropped on your head, repeatedly, just makes you feel a little woozy—this is what they’d write. Best of all, it subliminally turned untold millions of kids onto the idea that dissonance—that piano falling down the stairs, the guitar squiggle that opens the Looney Tunes theme—was an acceptable, even cherished, musical idea. In the context of cartoons, it expressed a narrative and dramatic idea as clearly as its visual accompaniment. It was also funny as hell.

I’m willing to wager Matt Friedberger watched a lot of the same cartoons I did, and Bitter Tea finally bears it out. “In My Little Thatched Hut” begins with a portentous, hulking variation of Scott’s jackboot-blues theme “Powerhouse.” It can be found in any number of factory scenes in WB cartoons (Os Mutantes, to whom the Fiery Furnaces owe a direct influence, used it wholesale in one of their songs), and as the narrative gets twitchier, the music accelerates. Dig this, though: the narrative only gets twitchier because the music accelerates. The only thing Eleanor Friedberger says throughout the phrase is “In my little thatched hut / the grey green grass grows by the brook / I lounge and I look / I lounge and I look / for my own true love to return.” Lounge, hell! This bassline is pacing music, hands behind back, eyes narrowed, brow creased. The true-love doesn’t return, and she paces faster, nervous and rumbling now. It’s interspersed with acoustic guitar chords, seemingly unrelated to the dominant theme but a well-worn maneuver in both Stalling and Friedberger’s modus operandi. The song ends with dramatic diminished chords slammed on a piano, then falling suddenly one step. What an ugly song. What a brilliant one, too.

Stalling/Scott had been a comparatively subdued influence over Friedberger up to this point (like everyone else, I had been looking toward the usual Captain Beefheart/Os Mutantes signposts to explain the maddening, kitchen-sink whirlwind that characterizes many of their records); curiously enough, this is the first record they’ve made that by and large ditches the fantastical and improbable—in other words, the cartoonish elements—in the storyline. Up until now, the band was as famous for the sheer epic scope of the lyric sheet as much as their seeming haphazard musical delirium. One didn’t need a dictionary to wade through Gallowsbird Bark and class=“style75”>Blueberry Boat, but rather a good almanac, and probably a reader’s guide to Ulysses. The first half of Bitter Tea snaps this trend. Here, the narrator is seen a lovesick shut in. She waits for her lover, waits to know him, too hungover and petulant to as much as comb her hair. The only time trademark street names and landmarks appear is on the title song, and that’s only to let the listener know where she is. “Bitter Tea” is merely an invitation for company and some much needed commiseration: “Aren’t you curious / what the osmanthus blossoms taste like / with a cup of bitter tea.” Eleanor’s curiosity comprised all 76 minutes of Blueberry Boat; here, she’s relying on yours. Melodically, though, we’re still in cartoon world: the song opens with what can best be described as an amphetamine-carnival melody, and ends with a restatement of the melody over the lines: “I am a crazy crane, I lost my true love in the rain;” on subsequent listening, one is struck by a mental image of a bird manically flapping around a small house.

One doesn’t need to look so hard into it; one listen makes clear that the train-hopping will be kept to a minimum. Eleanor is practically buried in the mix, to say nothing of the backwards singing throughout much of it. The words are reprinted in the liner notes, but occasionally the printing bleeds into the background art. This has the intended effect of obscuring whatever narrative exists. This doesn’t mean that it’s weak, or that one doesn’t exist (though I’m still entirely open to that possibility, but by now I’ve gotten 1300 words in and built a full head of steam, so please forgive me). Only that for the first time on a Fiery Furnaces record, nothing much is happening. No one goes anywhere, there aren’t any shady businesses transactions, and there are no appearances from the army of a remote south Asian city-state. The whole thing isn’t so terribly difficult, however; one needs very little work to get into it. “Bitter Tea,” fitting for a title song, gives the band’s modus operandi for the album: aren’t you curious, listener, consumer, whatever? Then why don’t you come here, for a change?

This means the story is told by the murkiest and most ambiguous of devices: the music. Being as it doesn’t contain much by way of rising action or character development, there is instead an emphasis on color and theme. It’s cold, windy, and cramped in the little thatched hut. Anxiety gives way to depression (see the absolutely dolorous “Black-Hearted Boy” or the limpid “Teach Me Sweetheart”), anger to hope, and vice versa. Things are jumbled and uncertain—motifs from one song appear in another for (apparently) no reason, singers and instruments are backwards, and there is a constant sudden shift in feel. Often times, there is a giant (and sort of irritating) whoosh, and a verse is repeated with different instrumentation, or backwards even.

One could, if they wish, choose to read all of this literally: different motifs could represent different characters, or different memories for the one character, like a zany pop equivalent of Peter and the Wolf. I prefer relaxing my eyes a bit, like one of those 3D posters of sailboats (that I can never see), and letting the things themselves tell the story. If you’ve ever been alone in your own house, lovesick and depressed, for long stretches of time, you probably know that one day bleeds into another, and that sequences of events are less static when they’re reconstructed in your mind, especially if you keep concentrating on the jerk who doesn’t call you back. Hope—nay, desperation—is a stubborn thing, though. “And when I’m about to give up hope / but nope,” she coos in “Waiting to Know You,” toy pianos winding in the background. She’s back at her telescope by song’s end, lounging and waiting for her true love to return, this time by air.

Dividing the album in two is “The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry.” Quite a few noses up at the Cokemachine office have been scrunched by this track. I think it’s my favorite, and not out of simple perversion. The song gets off to at least four false starts: an acoustic guitar shuffle; an almost whimsical curse, which is then masked backward; a regular drum pattern that also is reversed; then half stepped backwards drumming. The instrumentation is almost completely backwards, consisting of tack piano, arrhythmic percussion, saxophone squawks, and what could very well be a processed tuba. It’s not hard to see why this song grates: Matthew sings a mantra (wait for it: backwards) that’s occasionally interrupted by the odd toy laser blast, and your reward for sitting through four minutes of this is an absolutely piercing blast of John Carpenter-like synthesizer playing blocky minor chords for the next two.

Oh, thank Sony for inventing the skip button, you’d say, and I’d say if you raise one hand to that stereo I’m going to cut it off. “The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry” is absolutely essential music; it’s the album’s breaking point, the place where resignation, futility, fear and anger all meet and flash. Eleanor finally makes her presence felt on the record, and how: “I found myself an unworthy thing / despairing of my case all the time” she barks. “Damn it all, damn it all to hell.” Matthew: “So vile, so violent.” Eleanor: “Preserve me! Preserve me! Protect me! Save me!” The song’s finale gives us enough places to fill three Fiery Furnaces albums (some of these are truly great: “the St. Innocent Orthodox and Jesus in Delight”). It’s creepy, but, well, it can be scary getting out of the house, sometimes.

After this point, it’s more familiar terrain for the Furnaces, which is to say everywhere on the map. Eleanor begins “Oh Sweet Woods” in the lobby of “665 ½ Frontage Rd” on the California side of Lake Tahoe. Two Mormons come in and kidnap her—I like where this is going—and begin to speak in tongues (a la Matthew’s backwards singing) in the parking lot. Somehow everyone winds up in a Boise supermarket, where it’s revealed that the two want to balance her checkbook in exchange for a key to a safety deposit box. She blinks, and we get one of the most delicious moments in pop I’ve ever heard: “I said ‘You’ve got the wrong Eleanor Friedberger.’”

“Then they began to dance like this.” When the story moves, so does the music. Matthew has said that Bitter Tea is their attempt at “wussy, psychedelic Satanism,” but “Oh Sweet Woods” comes off more like wussy plastic disco (but effective wussy plastic disco). “Borneo” is an outright rock song, a surprising blast on a relatively low key album. It also reads the world’s most exemplary Fiery Furnaces song: it’s a whirlwind of drums, briskly surging ahead while Eleanor tells a story chock full of impulsive gambling, flights to the Caymans and Baltimore, thefts of debit cards and Property Deeds. The bulk of the instrumentation during “Nevers,” and most of the singing, is backwards, giving it a very unreal, even tentative feeling. Suitably, it’s a paean to a town never visited; the siblings get in a car and realize they have no idea where they’re going (“I left it off my map!”), but they go anyway. There’s love in the air, finally, during “Police Sweater Blood Vow,” and we get it too: live instrumentation, guitars, a damn great hook. There’s no shift in feel anywhere in sight for three minutes.

It’s impossible to deny the uncomfortable choice of instrumentation. When live drums show up on “Borneo” and “Police Sweater Blood Vow,” it’s a welcome burst of energy after fifty minutes of tiring analog synthesizers. But there are two explanations that, perhaps, exculpate this. The first has something to do with the sheer volume of material the band’s done, enough to fill five long players since mid 2003. Matthew Friedberger likes to work quickly, which perhaps explains his awkward lyrical phrasing (from “Borneo:” “I try to run an errand/nervous sweat / I rush back home and if I win, I’ll give her half (I bet)”) and all of those cheap synths. Prince performed most of his 1980’s output himself, and starting with 1999 showed a predilection for digital programming over live instruments partly because working with them was that much faster. The only difference between him and Matthew is that you wouldn’t put the latter’s music on in a club.

The other is that Bitter Tea, more than any other they’ve done, is an insular record. It begins in alone in a room, waiting for a lover; it ends with “Whistle Rhapsody,” where an old woman ruminates on a life of wasted opportunity, whistling her loneliness away. Perhaps it’s designed to reflect that—a brittle story made at home, cheaply, often on what sounds like toys. It’s been alleged that the backwards stuff, the strange noises, the sudden digital whooshes that crop up are a way to keep the band interested on a record that bores them—for all the shifting and Elmer’s glue patchwork, these songs are absolutely straightforward when compared to “Chris Michaels,” “Quay Cur,” or anything from Rehearsing My Choir. I prefer to think of them as the wrinkles of memory, like Benji’s chapter in The Sound and the Fury, or the grief vortex Joan Didion so superbly chronicles in The Year of Magical Thinking. (An excellent example of this occurs halfway through “Benton Harbor Blues,” when Eleanor sings the line “When I look back.” Suddenly, the entire song becomes submerged, like it’s falling backwards on itself under the gossamer of effects and loops. Then, as if nothing had happened, it snaps right back into it: “When I look back on all the wasted years / all the good cheer and all the charm disappears.”)

But those are serious books; this is a cartoon, after all. Perhaps about heartache and loss, sure, but why can’t lovesickness be funny? Or, anyway, comical?; Bitter Tea has a bevy of unexplained items – crazy cranes, bloodthirsty in-laws, traitors lying in grass, osmanthus blossoms, card cheats and the only pewter pocket watch that belong to Joseph Smith’s Great-Great Uncle’s brother in law. It’s outlandish stuff, and requires suitably outlandish music, from its weird melodies to jarring segues to an ocean of sounds marking a transition from one verse to the next. Besides, how would those musical passages sound on a guitar, or an organ? It’d sound ill-fitting, like Bugs Bunny now hawking McDonald’s and playing basketball with Michael Jordan. It would sound, in a word, normal.

It’s possible—probable even—that I’m reading too much into it. Good; because somebody needs to, and while we wait around for the next Radiohead or Interpol or whatever, The Fiery Furnaces deserve a hell of a lot more than the “inaccessible, weird, fucks up my shuffle function on iTunes” reduction they’ve gotten from everyone not named Rob Mitchum this go-round. Here’s how much more: for my money, this band is the only one contained to this decade worthy of the kind of exegesis I’ve attempted here. I guess it may be rockist to assign a positive critical value to things like “rewards repeated listening” or “open to multiple interpretations,” or “elaborately constructed.” I’m not making their difficulty an inherit virtue, either (although I honestly don’t hear it; sure it’s not party music, maybe not even headphone music, but Bitter Tea contains such rich, gooey, Abbey Road pilfering melody—see “Waiting to Know You,” or “Borneo,” or “Police Sweater Blood Vow,” or “Bitter Tea”—that it’s hard to take any detraction really seriously), but I’m glad Matthew Friedberger puts weird sounds on his records. I’m glad someone is willing to follow their muse off a cliff (and, hopefully in the case of Rehearsing My Choir, dashed on the rocks below before combusting in a large fireball). I’m glad someone does things as a matter of aesthetic principle that may make them look completely ridiculous. I’m glad someone is at least taking chances in pop or rock or whatever I’m supposed to classify this as, because no matter how great those Sufjan Stevens or Interpol or Shins records are (and they are, and I love them, and I’m not arguing otherwise) they’re also Safe. That’s why I’ll take The Fiery Furnaces strangest bits any day, because safety has no place in a cartoon.