Last Summer with Eleanor Friedberger

by Steve

Eleanor Friedberger

It seems like everyone is nominating their album for the summer. The new Bon Iver record is a strong contender, and seems a real progression from his debut. I haven’t spent a whole lot of time with the Washed Out album, but what I have heard was a little too Eighties Pastiche for my tastes. However, while the jury is still out, I think I could well settle on the Eleanor Friedberger solo album, Last Summer, as my choice.

Friedberger is better known for her work with her brother Matthew in the band the Fiery Furnaces. Fiery Furnaces are probably one of the stranger mainstream-alternative (for want of a better term) acts of the last ten years.

Much of their work defies description, which I fully appreciate isn’t a whole lot of help to you. I’ve always been a little scared off from their stuff, but have been revisiting in light of Last Summer. I think it is fair to say many of Fiery Furnaces’ songs are like cryptic crosswords, both lyrically and musically. They throw in obscure musical and lyrical references, are ever-shifting and seem to leap amongst a variety of styles, leaving the listener to pick it all apart to make sense of it. And much like cryptic crosswords, they are frequently frustrating, but with a little time spent on them are ultimately rewarding.

And so it is quite a surprise that Last Summer is so straightforward. It feels like a consciously accessible and summery album. Many of these songs wouldn’t sound out-of-place on daytime radio or a movie soundtrack. It sounds like Friedberger has wrestled the pop songs that were hiding within the more esoteric stuff in the Fiery Furnaces’ work.

My Mistakes is a great pop single and opener, setting out the stall of seventies-inspired, laidback yet crafted pop. Roosevelt Island brings out the gentle funk, yet veers dangerously close to sounding like Texas. At times the album can sound a little pedestrian, especially compared to Friedberger’s earlier work, especially with the plodding piano and drums on Heaven and Scenes from Bensonhurst. Yet, in terms of the general easy-going nature of the album it’s forgivable and at this stage I’ll file the weaker songs as ‘growers’ and give them the benefit of the doubt.

The standout song is I Won’t Fall Apart on You Tonight, which elevates the album from being a good one, to a potentially great one. It is gorgeous, unashamed 60s/70s inspired pop, that Friedberger carries off without making it sound like an empty pastiche. It is beautifully arranged and considered, yet sounds effortless.

Friedberger generally sounds far more relaxed and comfortable than on the Fiery Furnaces’ records I’ve heard. On those records she sings with a kind of deadpan authority, a calm yet uncanny presence amongst the odd lyrics and musical shifts. On Last Summer it all feels a little more natural. She is generally still restrained and controlled in her singing, which means when she cuts loose on the likes of I Won’t Fall Apart on You Tonight it has a real impact. She is clearly capable of tailoring her delivery according to the style of the music. The simplicity of the record shows her versatility, and ultimately her confidence in her songwriting.

Anyway, what are you listening to this summer? And where should I go next on my Fiery Furnaces Odyssey?

Image from hallovalerie, via Flickr

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