After the frustrating Rehearsing My Choir album, I probably would have taken any subsequent release from the Fiery Furnaces as a return to form. Funny, then, that Bitter Tea was apparently recorded around the same time as that album and intended as a companion piece--though for the life of me I don't know why, since it's nothing like Rehearsing My Choir and would only serve as a palette cleanser.
I suppose, then, that's always been my assessment of Bitter Tea. It initially struck me as mediocre and confused, but with a year or two behind it, Bitter Tea stands as the great album it always was. So, why couldn't I see it at first?? Partially it was because it followed Rehearsing My Choir and I thought of it as an "OK, they haven't totally lost the plot" kind of apologetic release. Which it isn't, but I'll get to that in a bit.
Mostly I thought of it as confused and mediocre because of the heavy emphasis on keyboards and experimental backwards vocal conceits. The songs of Bitter Tea are every bit as good as Blueberry Boat when I consider them piece by piece, but as a whole they don't have the same transcendent feeling. I think that's because there's not enough guitars on this album. Not that other Furnace albums didn't have mounds of keyboards, but they also rocked out from time to time. Bitter Tea could almost qualify as their new wave album, if I were so inclined to label it. At the same time, it's their backwards vocal funhouse album.
Please remember that I have nothing against backwards vocals: I actually love Pullhair Rubeye unlike seemingly the rest of the world. But too often bands use it for self consciously difficult reasons, and your mileage will vary. On Bitter Tea, it only seems to work when it isn't the central function of the song. 'Vietnamese Telephone Ministry' irritates me because it's almost six minutes of dueling backwards and forwards vocals, mutated keyboards, and skittering drums; it never congeals into anything other than "my, that was a neat experiment...what's the next song??" Six other songs from the album use backwards effects, but since they don't feature them so prominently, they work. They pop up in the beginning of 'Oh Sweet Woods' and are peppered throughout, for example, but the grooving dance beats and sweet acoustic guitar instrumentation are at the heart of the song, not a bunch of gibberish.
I apologize for the abrupt transition (though in retrospect it's apropos for the Fiery Furnaces), but I want to get back to my original point about this being a palette cleansing, apologetic release. Since Bitter Tea sounds closest in spirit and sonics to Blueberry Boat, its lasting impression on me was always that of a safe album, a reminder to us of why we loved the band in the first place. Well, it does remind us of why we loved them, but that's due to its own merits and not its adherence to Blueberry Boat blueprints. In the end, it wasn't so much a palette cleanser as it helps isolate Rehearsing My Choir as the oddity in the Fiery Furnaces' discography, doubly so because it was recorded at the same time as that album. How different would feelings for both be if their releases were switched, and Bitter Tea came out after Blueberry Boat and EP??
There's a lot to say about the album that has nothing to do with the music, and I feel bad about that. Here I am six paragraphs in and I've only scraped the surface!! Well, let me just jump into it: 'Police Sweater Blood Vow' is another oddly perfect Fiery Furnaces pop song that could've easily fit into the latter half of Bluebery Boat, with a joyous "vibrate buzz buzz ring and beep/tell me babe what time is it now??" chorus. The first four songs build up steam in a near-suite of energy that releases in the ballad punch of 'Teach Me Sweetheart', truly one of Eleanor's best vocal performances on record. Finally, there's 'Nevers', which works wonders with the backwards vocal shtick by switching back and forth between regular and backwards seemingly word by word, before repeating the melody of the song in constantly mutating ways. Too bad, then, that two songs are repeated in different mixes at the end of the album. This sort of thing always bugged me about The Soft Bulletin by the Flaming Lips, too. But I digress.
I feel as though I've said so much about Bitter Tea and yet not enough. But then again, that goes for every Fiery Furnaces release--they're as fun to talk about as they are to listen to. But all that really matters is that, once all the equations were figured and votes tallied, Bitter Tea still stands as a great Fiery Furnaces album: nothing more, and nothing less.