In Brief: A fun, curious slice of indie pop that’s actually stronger than much of Eleanor’s work with The Fiery Furnaces.
“I thought I’d learned from my mistakes”, Eleanor Friedberger pines in the opening track of her new solo album. And boy howdy, has she done exactly that. I’ll admit that when I first heard the woman responsible for roughly half the songwriting and the lion’s share of lead vocals in The Fiery Furnaces was releasing a solo disc, I was less than enthused. This band, comprised of Eleanor and her brother Matthew Friedberger, has been easy to get intrigued by over the years since I first discovered Blueberry Boat in late 2004, but extremely difficult to fully fall in love with, their avant-garde tendencies sabotaging some of their most insanely brilliant song ideas just as often as they feed them. The entire career of the Furnaces has apparently been a process in learning from mistakes, with the style of their recordings becoming increasingly erratic in recent years – the backmasked, piano-heavy hoopla of Bitter Tea, the ADHD guitar scribblings and unstoppable messy sprawl of Widow City, and the surprisingly reigned in, comparatively more structured sound of I’m Going Away. Honestly nothing they’ve done since Bitter Tea has really recaptured the magic for me, but I realize that for some, it’s admirable enough that the band will experiment relentlessly and make those mistakes in wide open view of their audience. Embracing the chaos is part of the fun with these guys, and sometimes I get that, sometimes I don’t. Now, take Eleanor away from the more spastic tendencies that her brother apparently provided, and you still get your fair share of rambling shaggy-dog stories told in that half-singing, half-blurting out the words as fast as possible style that’s become Eleanor’s calling card, which amounts to a surprisingly concise – dare I say it? – pop record.
What’s great about Last Summer is that despite its decidedly catchy nature, it never feels like a compromise. Eleanor’s still content to be her weird self throughout these ten tracks, ranting and raving about obscure places and people and details that you’d think wouldn’t amount to much, but that reveal a lot of mixed emotions underneath the surface. There’s playfulness, there’s sorrow, there’s that feeling of a little girl lost in a grown-up world that emerges here and there. It’s “pop” in the same way that the Furnaces’ song “Here Comes the Summer” (not so coincidentally my favorite of theirs) happens to be – thoroughly quirky in its personality and in the seemingly inappropriate combination of musical ingredients that make up its sound, but sturdy enough in its structure to make sure a weird hook or an amusing lyrical idea can stick around long enough to get lodged in your brain. There’s a lovable dorkiness to Eleanor’s approach, and her incessant need to fill the silence with every thought that comes to mind means Last Summer certainly won’t be for everyone, but as far as musical head trips go, I’m finding it to be a lot more entertaining and lasting than a lot of her band’s more recent work. In the long run, it won’t be remembered for being as epic as, say, Blueberry Boat, but as an attempt to strike out on her own and establish a musical voice distinct from the Furnaces, this works by simple virtue of letting an idea play out over the course of a full song rather than abruptly changing direction every minute or two. Your mileage will of course vary, depending on how much you enjoy those ADHD antics on Fiery Furnaces record. But for sure, this’ll be an easier point of entry for most listeners who have never heard the Furnaces before.
1. My Mistakes
We might have a candidate for quirky indie pop song of the summer here. Yeah, I realize it’s not summer any more. But this breezy tune, with its cheery synths zipping up and down to make its chorus hook absolutely irresistible, certainly brightened up the waning days of September for me. You can tell immediately that Eleanor’s solo approach is much more to the point than the Furnaces – the piano and guitar chords just hammer straight ahead, no bizarre tricks, just a slice of old-school pop goodness that brings a stronger sense of melody and purpose to her madcap rambling. And don’t get me wrong – the rambling is still an integral part of the song, sort of a stream of consciousness as she flies down the road, thinking back on past years and past relationships and wondering what the heck she did wrong to wind up where she is now. “He’s ignoring me like it’s 2001”, she chirps at one point. I almost have to wonder: The year, or the movie? Many of the thoughts seem random, but in their own weird way, they connect and tell a story about two people continually misunderstanding each other and failing to get the hang of the other person’s communication style. Even if you can’t keep up with most of the words, you’ll get the chorus down pat with plenty of time left to sing along: “I thought I’d learn from my mistakes/I thought he’d learn from my mistakes/I thought she’d give me the right advice/I thought he’d let me in for one last time.” Then there’s a sax solo thrown in for good measure. Who wouldn’t love that? (Well, lots of people actually, but they’re all no fun.)
2. Inn of the Seventh Ray
This moody, midtempo geographic rant threw me for a loop in a good way, by romping around southern California and name-checking neighborhoods that are about a stone’s throw from where I live. Since a lot of the Furnaces’ songs have gallivanted around New York or Chicago or even East Asia – all places I’ve never been – I’ve never known whether the geography of their confused wanderings actually made sense in real life. But here it’s all about an ill-fated trip across Los Angeles to a pricey restaurant, which ends in disappointment as Eleanor realizes her companion has no idea where he’s going. (South Pasadena? Highland Park? Dude isn’t even close to the right page of the Thomas Guide!) “You promised you’d take me to the Inn of the Seventh Ray”, she signs, dejected. I love the way her voice echoes on the word “Ray”, and how the synths glitter and other sounds bounce and echo in the background – it’s a hypnotizing effect. It’s one of those moments where a real emotion shines through, because hey, I can relate to that experience of a date going south because I didn’t know where I was going, didn’t want to ask for directions, and got stuck in hellacious L.A. traffic until we were both starving and miserable. So this apparent shaggy dog story seems to have a deeper layer to it, as if this failure to show her a good time caused a deep rift in the relationship or something. Then again, her suggestions on how to find the place aren’t really helpful: “Take a lecture in stereoscopics to show us the way.” It’s little bizarre comments like this that really make the song for me.
Picking up with the same general mood and tempo from “Seventh Ray”, and barely even missing a beat as if the thoughts are meant to be connected, is this melodic piano-driven tune, which can seem a bit plodding at first, but once it gets fleshed out with horns and backing vocals, it becomes a thing of simple beauty. “Did you ever find a place to be?” Eleanor sings repeatedly. “Did you ever find a place to believe.” That and the curious phrase “Heaven, you are me” are the main hooks of the song, and I have no idea what that means, but the verbal wrestling with personal experiences of heaven and hell is intriguing nonetheless. I love how the synths – which sounds like they could be a magical sound effect out of a 60’s sitcom – trade off with the piano solo during the bridge. This one sort of fades out before it quite feels like the thought has been completed, so it’s not quite as brilliant as the opening two tracks, but it’s still one of the songs I find myself humming later in the day after I’ve listened to the album all the way through.
4. Scenes From Bensonhurst
Slow drums, the strum of an acoustic guitar, and bass are the lead instruments in this reasonably gentle song, with keyboards showing up to color between the lines not too long after. Though abstract, this one plays as a story of regret, with Eleanor scaling back the rambling a bit to softly croon: “I laid in bed and dreamt/I never said that/I lay in bed and tempt myself/With my scream, my scream, my scream.” This always makes me wonder if she’s dreaming she never said something that she wishes she hasn’t said in real life, or if she’s asserting that she never said she laid in bed and dreamt. Maybe the former, because it appears she’s getting inundated with Emails over whatever controversial comment she made: “Next, next next/Now it’s all of them in my inbox”. Things seem to get slowly unhinged from there, with one of Eleanor’s asides jarring the gentle mood of the song to make this observation: “His mom went blind with her third baby/Oh sh*t, that’s crazy.” Odd juxtapositions are actually commonplace in the Fiery Furnaces’ songs, so this shouldn’t be that surprising, but still, I’m always a bit unsure as to what sort of mood this song’s meant to evoke.
5. Roosevelt Island
Yeah! Play that funky bass, man! Depending on your personal tastes, this song will either be a five-minute slab of awesomeness that steamrolls the competition, or an incessantly repetitive two-chord bore. I fall on the side of the former, because I just love the tweaked-out, funked-up sound of the bass. It’s purposefully, self-consciously trapped in another time, the sinewy sound of it depicting a subway journey through a bustling grey city. Rather than playing it for urban grit, Eleanor quickly rambles through the song as if five minutes still doesn’t give her enough time to describe the wide-eyed wonder of a day spent gallivanting around New York, where the mere act of stepping off the subway and seeing the light of day peeking through those tall buildings is the biggest miracle she’s ever laid eyes on. Her observations of the details around her – the flashing lights and even the vagrant invading her personal space – play like a love letter to the city. It takes an artists’ eye to see these things through such a positive lens. I sure wouldn’t ever consider writing such a joyous romp about Los Angeles, that’s for damn sure.
6. Glitter Gold Year
Just when Eleanor seemed to be on a roll, it all starts to fall apart with this plodding and positively irritating song. It’s outdated the second it gets out of the gate as Eleanor stutters, “It’s a glitter gold year, two thousand and ten.” OK, I guess the record’s called Last Summer for a reason, and the outdatedness is intentional. Still, she has little to repeat other than that one thought, which gets maddeningly dragged out as she repeats the digits like an OCD mental patient who just discovered a numeric keypad – “2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2/0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0/1, 0/1, 0.” There’s some talk of wanting to erase “her”, and the warning “You said it wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s worse.” Yeah, you’re telling me, sister. The music does nothing to distract from the blunt force, stop-and-go rhythm of the words, making it feel like the entire track was made up completely on the spot while whoever was in the studio played as slow and repetitive a rhythm as they could imagine. Thankfully it’s the album’s shortest song.
7. One-Month Marathon
Another acoustic song shows up here, this one a little looser with its slow rhythm, the percussion tumbling in the background as if they’re not following the exact same beat as the guitar, lagging behind ever so slowly. This gives the song a detached haze, which is actually appropriate for Eleanor’s sleepy narrative, which is part creepy seduction attempt and part overt threat. One minute her sweet voice is tempting the object of her affection: “For my next ensemble, I will be wearing nothing at all”, and the next, she sounds almost vindictive without changing that sweet tone of voice, which might make it that much scarier: “Said I’m gonna wrap the night around your neck/Slice up your head, daddy.” For the chorus, she’s almost a child with her incessantly curious requests: “Can I play in your closet?/Can I poke round your door?/Can I see through your mirror?/Can I come in your store, baby?” The classical guitar solo (which is weirdly backed by some sort of warped sound effect just to make sure we don’t get too comfortable) is a nice break in the middle of the song, but all the way through, it persists in pulling off its deft balance between beautiful and disturbing moods. Make of it what you will.
8. I Won’t Fall Apart on You Tonight
Here’s another song that feels a bit like old-timey pop music dragged kicking and screaming through the flotsam and jetsam of time. That bouncy chorus melody and the piano chords ringing out every eighth note triumphantly may as well be the building blocks of popular music as we new it, but then there’s all this weird backmasking and echoing poking through – it’s just how Eleanor does a pop song, and I love her for it. The premise of this one’s pretty simple – Eleanor’s trying to say goodbye to someone she cares about, and she’s playing it as stoically as she knows how, resolving to not make the parting any more difficult by turning into a complete basketcase. The titular promise is made in the chorus: “I won’t fall apart on you tonight/But I don’t know what tomorrow may bring.” This one’s easy to fall in love with, especially when she brings in a horn section, and just to keep the mood from getting to maudlin, whoever’s playing piano has a great old time banging on random keys at the end of the song, as if throwing a musical temper tantrum. It’s cathartic.
9. Owl’s Head Park
This one’s another adventure in getting lost in New York City’s concrete jungle, though not nearly as cheery as “Roosevelt Island”. A searched for some used bicycle parts seems like it’s going to lead to another one of Eleanor’s usual “I went here and then did this” travelogues, but the melancholy is ratcheted way up right from the beginning with the deep, minor key synth chords. Sax is blurting about here and there like there’s a Dave Matthews Band free jam session going on next door. It becomes clear as the skies darken and Eleanor tries to retrace her own steps back to the starting point of her journey, having lost her bike and her sense of direction, that this is more than just a geographic crisis; it’s an existential one. And I feel sad for her and I just want to give her a big hug and a ride to keep her from getting jumped in some dark alley. Yet at the same time I’m also amused at the randomness of her observations as she wanders: “I imagine Governor’s Island is Shutter Island/Imagine Christopher Walken as a dancer named Ryan/It just don’t seem right.” The clackety-clacking percussion continues to drive this odd mixture of post-funk post-jazz post-pop post-whatever, until it finally collapses and the rhythm leads us seamlessly into…
10. Early Earthquake
…a surprisingly upbeat closing number, actually. It sneaks right in there if you’re not paying close attention, but the cheerier melody and handclaps should tip you off that the mood has decidedly changed. The ground shakes. The long lost suitor shows up at Eleanor’s door. She’s startled but glad to have been jolted out of her funk. It’s such a fun, free-spirited little jam, complete with a brief harmonica rip (and once again, if you don’t love that, you’re just a killjoy), and I find myself wishing it could go on for twice as long as the barely two minutes that it does. Alas, despite this track running for three minute, the last minute or so is merely a “hidden track” consisting of soothing nature sounds. Which makes no sense to me at all, considering the decidedly urban context of everything that’s come before.
So that’s Last Summer – brief, spirited, moody, full of weird left turns, but still more reigned in and to the point than a Fiery Furnaces album. I enjoy it greatly for all those reasons. It’s not a landmark recording but still a delightful curiosity that adds some intrigue to an otherwise dull work day, or some whimsy to a boring commute, while also being the kind of album that rewards deeper listening due to how it makes my curiosity wander off in all sorts of different directions. I have no idea what the Furnaces’ future plans are, but if time allows, I hope Eleanor will see fit to bring us a Next Summer one of these days.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
My Mistakes $2
Inn of the Seventh Ray $1.50
Scenes From Bensonhurst $.50
Roosevelt Island $1.50
Glitter Gold Year -$.50
One-Month Marathon $.50
I Won’t Fall Apart on You Tonight $1.50
Owl’s Head Park $1.50
Early Earthquake $1.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.