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Fiery Furnaces burn bright on new CD

Siblings wrote ‘Bitter Tea’ from the point of view of an adolescent girl
/ Source: The Associated Press

Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, the brother-sister duo that make up the Fiery Furnaces, are nothing if not specific about their new album, “Bitter Tea.” Conceived as an album from a young girl’s perspective, the Friedberger siblings debate her characteristics.

“She’s definitely menstrual,” says Matthew, straight-faced.

After “Rehearsing My Choir,” an album made with and about their grandmother, the Furnaces — one of the most eccentric acts in music — have adopted a new role.

Matthew describes “Bitter Tea” as the depressed love songs of a lyrical, 12-year-old girl, alone in her room, banging on a piano.

“It’s a clever young person’s fantasy of being satisfied with life,” he says.

On the disc’s opener, “In My Little Thatched Hut,” Eleanor sings, “I lounge and I look/ for my own true love to return.”

Eleanor, 29, does most of the singing for Fiery Furnaces while Matthew, 33, does most everything else: songwriting, producing and playing myriad instruments. The tack piano is customarily central, though “Bitter Tea” is full of effects, including several lyrics played backward.

Adventurous and uniqueSome critics have called them pretentious, but they’re universally considered adventurous and one-of-a-kind. Though their music is complex, it often retains a playful, childlike quality — a combination that hasn’t yielded tremendous album sales, but has attracted cultish fans.

“Bitter Tea” is their fourth album, barely three years after their first, “Gallowsbird’s Bark.” They followed the 2003 debut with “Blueberry Boat,” their most polarizing work to date.

A sprawling prog-rock opera in the mold of the Who, “Blueberry Boat” was hailed as a masterpiece by some, and dismissed as infuriating by others. Then came “Rehearsing My Choir,” which was typically described as “difficult.”

It was an entire album about the life of Olga Sarantos, the Friedberger’s grandmother. Sarantos sings about memories and growing old — which makes the innocent, youthful viewpoint of “Bitter Tea” an intended opposite.

The two discs were recorded at the same time, which is surprising given how different they are.

“Bitter Tea” — while a mishmash of digital effects, soft crooning and rapidly shifting melodies — also contains simple, beautiful pop songs like “Waiting to Know You” and “Benton Harbor Blues.”

The New York Times called it a “dense, jumbled, energetic, totally inorganic, quite brilliant word- and note-stuffed album.”

“That’s what I like to do, is arrange things together — and that’s really what songwriting is,” says Matthew. “I think people who write songs get too into the moment of inspiration, being excited about the first part of writing a song. That’s not really where the action is.

“I think it’s manipulating it in some sort of way.”

Nothing in common but musicThe Friedberger siblings grew up in Oak Park, Ill., but only started playing together when they both ended up living in different parts of Brooklyn. Matthew had previously played in bands, and encouraged Eleanor to develop her singing.

“That’s what we have most in common as siblings, is rock music taste,” says Matthew. “We don’t have much else in common.”

“Well, we both like bread,” says Eleanor, adding, “not the band.”

They say that if not for their music, they would rarely see each other. One of their few other commonalities is sports.

“It’s conceivable that we would play tennis,” says Matthew. “That would be how we would socially interact besides playing in a band.”

Right now, their band appears to be at a crossroads. After their first three albums on the indie label Rough Trade, “Bitter Tea” found a home at Fat Possum, known more for its Delta blues catalogue.

It’s been over a year since they recorded “Bitter Tea,” and in the meantime, Matthew has worked on two upcoming solo albums. On Wednesday they kicked off a tour that will meander through Europe and North America.

“This is going to be a new beginning for us,” says Eleanor.

New ideas for the Fiery Furnaces are already forming; Matthew’s current interest is to make an album inspired by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

And given the Fiery Furnaces record for experimentation, it would be foolish to dismiss that as merely a joke.