What should one expect from a solo album by one of the Friedberger siblings (aka the Fiery Furnaces)? They are a band that is rarely predictable and often walks a tightrope between being totally irritating and utterly compelling. And strangely enough, when they opt to play it more or less straight, the results are not always great—take their last album, the piano-based and mostly inert I'm Going Away, for example. The group is so prolific and seems to take so much glee in flummoxing its fans in one way or another that I no longer approach their releases with any expectations whatsoever—it's just as possible that it will be brilliant as it will be stupid. Happily, Eleanor Friedberger's solo debut is brilliant—one of my favorite new albums of the year so far. Hovering around 40 minutes and made up of ten unique earworms, Last Summer retains all of the vocal and lyrical quirks Friedberger displays in her full-time gig as it luxuriates in straightforward song structures. Even the saxophones in "My Mistakes" and "Owl's Head Park" don't bother me—an exception to the rule in this year of the saxophone's indie rock invasion.
There's something about Friedberger's persona that is endlessly fascinating, despite sometimes feeling repetitive. As a singer she doesn't have a terribly broad range, and two-thirds of the time she is actually doing more of a staccato monologue than singing. Her lyrics rhyme as often as they don't; she seems to be reading straight out of a journal—half diary entries, half stabs at short stories. I've started to regard her as the Christopher Walken of rock and roll—just give her the script, remove all the punctuation marks, and let her speak the words in her own strange and rhythmic cadence, which seems to adhere to rules of orating that the rest of us are not privy to. If I showed you the lyrics to one of the verses of "The Inn of the Seventh Ray," could you intuitively tell me where she's breaking the lines?
If Highland Park isn't close enough there's that place on the way to the Inn of the Seventh Ray. Take a lecture in stereoscopics to show us the way to see with one eye open and one eye closed. You keep one eye open and one eye closed on the rest of the 1, I don't think so.
The words barely even make a lick of sense printed on the page, but somehow Friedberger evokes the images just right—the song seems to be about old friends reuniting as they try to find their way from East Los Angeles to a restaurant in Topanga Canyon (about an hour's drive, for the record). Some of the lyrics she tosses in are poetic at best, nonsensical at worst ("Climb upand down to the car in the commercial that pays for us to eat at the Inn of the Seventh Ray, but since the handle is broken, I can't get out," she sings later), but it hardly seems to matter when Friedberger sings/speaks them in her carefully plotted style.
This is clearly the key element to Friedberger that one must lock into in order to enjoy her music; if ever I hear a criticism of her singing style (including with the Fiery Furnaces), it is that she is "overly mannered" in her delivery. Yeah, she is—so what? The joy of her songs, aside from the way their melodies seem to burrow into your head even when she's not fully singing, is in listening to her lyrics. If you tune out the words and only listen to the vocal, she can start seem more of a one-note singer. That's partly why only one song on album, "Glitter Gold Year," falls flat for me. That page of Friedberger's journal seems only to have had a couple of lines scratched out on them, and she's committed to stretching them out over almost three minutes, hence the repetition of "2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-0-0-0-0-0-1-0." Compared to the nine other tracks on the album, this is the one time it sounds like Friedberger is passing time, waiting for inspiration to hit.
Of course, in true Fiery Furnaces fashion, that's also the song that worms its way into my brain more than any of the others. Say what you want about either of the Friedbergers, but they certainly know how make hooks—whether you like the feeling of those hooks in your brain is another question. As far as Last Summer goes, they're sinking in deeper and deeper with every listen and that's just how I want it.
- Eleanor Friedberger: Inn of the Seventh Ray