The Church of Bitter Tea
The Fiery Furnaces Start Another Religion

The new Keane album is called Under the Iron Sea, and it comes out here on June 20.

I’m racking my brain to come up with any first album I have ever enjoyed more than Hopes and Fears, Keane’s 2004 debut. It made number two on my top 10 list that year, ahead of Marillion’s Marbles, a feat in itself, and just behind Brian Wilson’s amazing SMiLE. I can only think of a couple opening shots I’ve liked more – Jellyfish’s Bellybutton, for example, or Ben Folds Five.

So I’m in that familiar state of anticipation and dread for the follow-up, especially after hearing that the trio a) almost broke up while recording it, and b) decided to shake up their sound and produce something darker. I love their sound, and I don’t want them to shake it up. I admire bands who can keep growing and evolving, and I certainly don’t want a Strokes situation for Keane – they’re way too good to produce the same album over and over. But change is scary.

My hopes are renewed and my fears allayed, however, by the first single, “Is It Any Wonder.” Wow. This is one of my favorite songs of the year so far, and seemingly a shove back at everyone who ever called Keane boring. It doesn’t take much to get me excited – a killer melody, sung and played well, will do it – and this song has a hook that never stops. Plus, I have been assured by several sources that there are no guitars on this tune, a claim I find hard to believe, but there you go.

This song is great, and if Under the Iron Sea weren’t already atop my list of records I can’t wait to hear this year, it is now. I won’t post any links to the tune or its video, but both are floating around the web in a number of unofficial places, and I’m sure a simple Google search will yield results.

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Apologies for last week’s absence. My workload has increased exponentially since becoming the new City of Aurora reporter, and last week (and this one), controversial news just kept exploding in front of my face. By the time I sat down to write last Saturday, the words just weren’t there. I hope this doesn’t happen again – I did plan to have two columns for this week, but I didn’t find the time, which is another bad sign. I’m not sure what I can do to improve this situation, but I will do everything I can. I love this column, and I don’t want to give it up, nor do I want to produce crappy, cranked-out junk just to meet the deadline.

Thanks for your patience and understanding.

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The Fiery Furnaces have four albums now, and each one seems to have started its own religion.

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a band that divides its fans as consistently as the Furnaces do. The Friedberger siblings (Matthew and Eleanor) began their career with 2003’s Gallowsbird’s Bark, a simple little blues workout that didn’t impress me much, but gained them legions of devotees. They’ve not yet made another album like it.

Instead, they returned 10 months later with Blueberry Boat, a nearly 80-minute masterpiece of garage-prog, with 10-minute songs and suites and an obviously restless imagination. Blueberry Boat sounds to me like Spoon trying to make Tales from Topographic Oceans with $50 and an eight-track. It’s extraordinary, but it seems timid when compared to Rehearsing My Choir, last year’s collaboration with the Friedbergers’ grandmother, Olga Sarantos. Choir is a seamless radio play narrated by Sarantos, full of textures and sound effects and one plunking, nostalgic piano. It’s incredible, but it plays like a dare – so you stayed with us from our boogie-blues record to our crazy-ass synth-prog album, but can you handle this?

I could. I love to be challenged by music, and I especially love following artists that aren’t afraid to express an individual vision. The Furnaces’ vision is perhaps the most individual one on the Pitchfork-approved indie scene right now, and their records have only two things in common – Matthew’s absurd genius for melody and arrangement, and Eleanor’s clear, gorgeous voice.

The trend continues with Bitter Tea, the duo’s fourth album in two and a half years (not counting their EP, called – what else – EP, which collected singles and b-sides). Sonically, it shares that plunking piano with Choir – it was intended as a companion piece – and a crazy sense of ground-falling-away songcraft with Blueberry, but that’s about it. Everything else is new territory, and as usual, it’s brilliant, maddening, difficult and amazing. And as usual, the fans are divided.

Bitter Tea was touted as a return to guitar-rock, but don’t you believe that. There are guitars, but they’re woven in with oceans of keyboards, pianos and sound effects, Matthew Friedberger firing up his trademark ADD arrangement sense. Bitter Tea, like the albums before it, reminds me of New England weather: if you don’t like what’s happening, wait two minutes, and it’ll change. The album kicks off with a count-in, promising a live feel, and then dashes that with “In My Little Thatched Hut,” a multi-textured studio wonder that changes direction half a dozen times.

So goes the whole record – just as soon as the band settles into a groove on something, Matthew loses interest, and he’s on to the next idea. Some of his ideas are more brilliant than others, and I found myself wishing more than once that he would follow something to its logical conclusion instead of leapfrogging ahead, but that’s his style. “Black Hearted Boy” establishes a sweet piano theme, dissects it, inverts it, coughs it up and then restates it, just in time for the title track to explode all over it. It’s great stuff, but it does take several listens to fully grasp.

The Furnaces do take things in some new directions here – Bitter Tea is their darkest record, lyrically and musically, and they lay down some of their most compelling atmospheres. The album repeatedly returns to backwards recording, almost as a motif – “Teach Me Sweetheart” is almost entirely made up of backwards piano, drums and keys, and many songs contain backwards verses or bridges. The technique is used so effectively that it’s part of the song – I don’t care what Eleanor is singing in the reversed sections. They sound right just the way they are.

The album gets a bit more traditional by its conclusion, but not much – “Nevers” sounds like it will be a loping snooze-fest until the vocals come in, all cut-and-pasted like the next generation of “1999.” (Dig the second verse, recorded backwards but retaining the melody of verse one. That must have taken days to put together.) Still, the ideas don’t come as fast and furious in the final few tracks, perhaps indicative of Matthew’s well running dry. But give the guy a break – he wrote and recorded more than four hours of material in 30 months, and he even found time to do two solo records, coming later this year. If he slips a bit – and “Benton Harbor Blues” is definitely slipping a bit – I can’t fault him for it.

Bitter Tea is manic, ridiculous, fascinating, daunting and idiosyncratic – essentially, everything you could want in a Fiery Furnaces album. The Furnaces are one of the few current bands I know that can’t be described or encapsulated. They simply must be heard. I can’t relate what they do to any other band I know, and I’ll be amazed if they can keep up this level of imagination and enthusiasm for their whole career. It would be tempting to list off all of the styles they play brilliantly, and call them the best garage-prog-rock-blues-ambient-folk-sea shanty-techno-pop band there is, but it’s easier just to say this:

They are the Fiery Furnaces. There is no one like them. Period.

Next week is the best new-CD week of the year, with new ones from Pearl Jam, Tool, Glen Phillips, Ministry and the Elms. So I’ll review one or two of those, most likely.

See you in line Tuesday morning.