Before the release of Bitter Tea, their fifth album since 2003, Fiery Furnaces songwriter/arranger/producer/multi-instrumentalist Matthew Friedberger claimed it would be straighter and less convoluted than 2004's Blueberry Boat and 2005's Rehearsing My Choir, and he's sort of right. Which isn't to say that Bitter Tea is any less free-floating than those two discs, on which the Furnaces sealed their cult by bringing into hyperreal focus a habit of writing eight song-sections where most bands would stop once they've come up with a verse, chorus, and bridge.
This time around, the Friedbergers (Matt and sister/vocalist Eleanor) do the same kind of thing, though in a far less jarring way. You might even call it friendly, in its kooky way. It helps that the parts all sound like they belong in the same place even when they're entirely dissimilar from each other. 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 use them all. Even on a relatively straightforward tune like the pensive "I'm Waiting to Know You," they can't resist fracturing straightforward phrases: "I'm standing guard, the navy yard, to see/Could there one for me be?"
All of this is as willful as its description sounds. But between Eleanor's voice, which 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, and the tunes Matthew gives her to sing, as chewy as the stuff surrounding them is knotty ("I'm in No Mood" and "I'm Waiting to Know You" work themselves into your head almost surreptitiously), more often than not, even the difficult stuff sticks.