Revenge of the Nerds

Brainy kids grow up but never stop flustering adults

The Fiery Furnaces
Bitter Tea
Fat Possum

"Nobody loves a genius child," Langston Hughes once wrote. He was on to something, but he stopped short of saying what most people would mean by it, which is that nobody can stand a genius child—the kind that can spin out variations on a topic long after everyone else has moved on. But what if those kids grew up and formed a band? They might be the Fiery Furnaces: obviously brilliant, completely original, and totally maddening—only this time it's on purpose. Aside from their first album, 2003's Gallowsbird's Bark, where vocalist Eleanor Friedberger had strong songwriting input, the band's guiding force has been her older brother Matt, who writes, plays, arranges, and produces nearly everything they've done since, including the new Bitter Tea.

Gallowsbird's Bark garnered a lot of lazy White Stripes comparisons based on the Friedbergers' (actual) sibling status; today, any resemblance between the two acts is a bad joke. It's almost as if the Friedbergers found out they were being linked to Jack and Meg and decided to spend their careers making absolutely certain that it never happened again, from concentrating on keyboards (Matt's compositional tool of choice since 2004's Blueberry Boat) instead of guitars to making their lyrics weirder and more specific: "I was 18 years old, just a research volunteer/I walked home from the TCBY each night with no fear," Eleanor sang on Blueberry Boat's "Spaniolated," probably the first reference to the fro-yo chain in pop history.

Ma Friedberger says: "Can't you look at the camera like your sister? And would it kill you two to smile?"
Courtesy of Press Here Publicity
Ma Friedberger says: "Can't you look at the camera like your sister? And would it kill you two to smile?"

Ascribing any kind of master plan to a band is exactly the kind of thinking that kids who think too much are prone to doing. But the Fiery Furnaces invite this kind of scrutiny. It may be perverse that their most immediately inviting album is 2005's odds-and-ends compilation, whimsically titled EP—42 minutes long, featuring 10 songs that sound like songs and not like aural Rube Goldberg diagrams—but it's also appropriate. Bury the treasure and give the listeners just enough clues to let them figure it out.

None of the Furnaces' other albums have sounded like Boat, but it's the one that sealed their cult by bringing into hyperreal focus Matt's habit of writing eight song sections where most bands would stop once they've come up with a verse, chorus, and bridge. Last year's Rehearsing My Choir achieved something similar, only the focus was fuzzier and less jarring, with the crucial qualification that the music was purely a backdrop for Matt and Eleanor's grandmother, Olga Sarantos, to tell tall tales about her Chicago girlhood—stories, it's worth pointing out, that Matt had fictionalized, sometimes lightly, sometimes outlandishly.

This is important, because it points to a basic fact that you have to deal with before you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the Fiery Furnaces: They can't stop tinkering with anything. If you can't abide this (and God knows how many good reasons there are not to), they will most likely drive you nuts. And unlike the genius children nobody loves, they will not, having exhausted themselves, eventually stop and take a nap. The Furnaces have recorded five albums in three-and-a-half years, none of which sound alike; they've toured extensively behind nearly all of them, and neither occasion I've caught them on has sounded like the records or each other. The constant is their restless, often exasperating penchant for reinventing the wheel every time out. Grandmother has some great stories about growing up? Embellish them! Wrote a catchy chorus hook? Make sure that nothing else in the song sounds remotely like it—what do you think we are, a pop band?

Well, yeah. For one thing, Eleanor's voice is so good at conveying blunt power even at moderate volume that you might not immediately notice how flexibly it adapts to whatever fripperies surround it. For another, the tunes Matt gives her to sing are as chewy as the stuff surrounding them is knotty. Some fans even hoped the new Bitter Tea might be a pop album, especially after Matt claimed in interviews that it would be straighter and less convoluted than Boat and Choir. He's sort of right, too. It helps that the parts all sound like they belong in the same place even when they're entirely dissimilar. The opening track, "In My Little Thatched Hut," alternates between a groove reminiscent of an interstitial segment from an early-'70s Children's Television Workshop program, a hushed acoustic-folkie strum, and a Tarzan-ready drum tattoo overlaid with space synths, as if the Friedbergers had come up with three separate arrangements and decided to throw them all together.

Songs like the melancholy "I'm Waiting to Know You" ("I'm standing guard, the Navy Yard, to see/Could there one for me be?"—they can't even resist fracturing straightforward devotional phrases) and the absurdly jaunty "I'm in No Mood" ("To comb my hair/There's a chill in the air/And it's catching," the last word sung so fast it sounds like a sneeze) seem less like pop than kids' songs, the kind of tunes a second-grade class might learn from a mischievous, piano-playing teacher. Which doesn't mean Bitter Tea is straight or not convoluted—but that's not all it is, or isn't.

 
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