One thing's for sure when it comes to Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, a.k.a. The Fiery Furnaces: They never put out the same album twice. Eccentric from the start, the brother-and-sister act debuted with 2001's Gallowsbird's Bark, which dodged most of the then-avoidable White Stripes comparisons by offering a version of primal rock too warped to be lumped in with their contemporaries. Blueberry Boat channeled the duo's energies into strange song suites, and last year's Rehearsing My Choir was the pair's most distinctive album yet, a long, cacophonous set showcasing the memories of the Friedbergers' grandmother, a choir director for a Greek Orthodox church. Choir was daring, unique, and nothing most people would choose to listen to more than once, and that pinpoints both the band's appeal and its biggest problem: The Friedbergers sometimes go so far off the edge that they lose sight of what made them appealing in the first place.
At first listen, that seems to be the case with the new Bitter Tea as well. Tea's songs layer what sound like the cheapest Casios known to man atop one another, taking off on unexpected tangents, then circling back. But what initially sounds like randomly spliced bits of third-generation new-wave mix-tapes gets more intriguing with each listen, largely because beneath the air of general weirdness, there's a perverse pop sensibility. "Benton Harbor Blues" begins with a lot of percussive electronic drum-clicks and malfunctioning computer noises, but it eventually gives way to Eleanor Friedberger's romantic vocals, which would give St. Etienne's Sarah Cracknell pause. Elsewhere, "The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry" fashions a strange hook out of a telephone number, and "Oh Sweet Woods" finds room for some disco gestures between the dissonant beats, backward vocals, and gentle acoustic guitars. It's all quite odd, but even its most eccentric, unpleasant moments prove as hard to forget as they are to ignore.