Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Album: Eleanor Friedberger - Last Summer

Last Summer (Eleanor Friedberger)
Album: Last Summer
Release Date: 7/12/11
Rating: ****** (6/10)

Eleanor Friedberger is the singer from Fiery Furnaces, the band that brought you Blueberry Boat, the world's first ever concept album about, er, a blueberry boat. And in answer to your question, no, no one knows what a blueberry boat is, nor what it has to do with a lost dog, tacos and the album's other jumbled subjects. What we do know is that Blueberry Boat was one of the freshest, most original albums of the last decade.

It's not that Last Summer is lacking the elements that make Fiery Furnaces great. Friedberger's rich voice, the relentless quirkiness, the effortless mid-song genre shifts - all of that is here. But where Fiery Furnaces exude a disarmingly pure sense of purpose and charming lack of self awareness, Last Summer sounds a mess. Friedberger can't seem to make up her mind if she wants to create art or play pop music. Of course, art and pop are inseparable, but the two nevertheless unravel here; rather merging, Friedberger's impulse toward the tuneful and her arty sensibilities sound conflicted and each hampers the other rather than enhancing it.

At least, sometimes it does. There's a lot of good ideas here and nothing here to indicate that Friedberger won't get them sorted out by her next release. "My Mistakes" opens the album rather abruptly - without any semblance of an intro, the first sound of the song (and the album) is Friedberger's voice launching into Verse One. Although the song is not lacking for production, the endearingly clunky synth should put a smile on your face. Sadly, the first misstep is a doozy - a reverbed smooth jazz saxophone solo. Whether it's an ironic statement or a post-ironic statement or no kind of statement at all, it's pure shite.

The saxophone solo illustrates exactly where this album goes wrong. The homey, intimate feel of the album, combined with its refusal to observe the boundaries of genre, should make it a winner. However, it veers too sharply in both directions. The experimental elements sometimes (as with the saxophone) sound forced and superfluous, while the singer-songwriter pieces bring the album - at moments - to the brink of sounding generic.

The album has some bright spots, though. The simplest parts are often the best - the first two thirds of the melancholy "Scenes from Bensonhurst," the tempered psych-folk of "One-Month Marathon" and the textbook disco of "Roosevelt Island" (where Friedberger's very un-textbook vocals save the song from being obnoxious, despite its shameless disco groove). "I Won't Fall Apart on You Tonight" is kind of rocking, even. Of course, the spell of such moments is always rudely interrupted by something corny and over-the-top. Knowing Fiery Furnaces, corny and over-the-top could be lovable. But, whether from too much self-awareness or not enough, it just isn't.

Friedberger uses Last Summer as an opportunity to showcase her impressive skills as a vocalist, but like any truly talented singer, she has no need to overdo it. In that sense, the album is exactly what it should be, a chance for Friedberger's curious voice to explore the world outside her brother's avant garde compositions (her brother being the other member of Fiery Furnaces, of course). In addition to having a distinct and powerful voice, Friedberger sets herself apart with her unusual cadence, melodic but conversational and often divorced from the beat in its rambling.

Turning away from the Furnaces' drug-addled nursery rhymes, Friedberger uses her solo album to explore more conventional subjects like regret and New York (the album is packed with Brooklyn/NYC-centric geographic specificity, including no less than two song titles). It's not quite as interesting as the mad whimsy of Blueberry Boat, but Friedberger still seems legitimately off her nut and her take on even the most mundane of subjects is still a bewildering barrage of stream-of-consciousness associations. As in Blueberry Boat, you can follow strands of stories and themes but the connections that seem so clear in Friedberger's confident delivery are, upon closer inspection, entirely inscrutable.

Those who keep listening through the embarrassing arrangements that define much of the album will be rewarded for their patience. The second to last song, "Owl's Head Park" is promising but its cool is spoiled by yet another nauseous saxophone. But the album finally redeems itself with the closer, "Early Earthquake." Starting with simple vocals over click-clacky percussion, the song warms with a restrained choppy rhythm guitar. Instrumental voices slip naturally in and out around this simple skeleton, a waft of feedback, a simple lead guitar and most notably, a harmonica, all executed with exquisite taste.

There should be no doubt, at this point, that Friedberger is a talented musician with a rare spark of originality. Her first solo outing shows that she's far more than just an instrument of her madman brother's wild genius; she is, as we were already pretty darn sure, an equal genius in her own right. But extracted from the creative partnership of Fiery Furnaces, Friedberger seems a little at sea. (The same could be said of some her brother's solo ventures.) Her creativity and god-given musical ability can't fail, and Last Summer is nothing if not promising. It's just going to take a little while for Friedberger to find balance on her own.

Stream the album here.

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