Eleanor Friedberger, Last Summer
Eleanor Friedberger is best-known as half of the brother/sister duo Fiery Furnaces, who have made their name as the merriest and most divisive willful eccentrics in indie rock. With their cartoon pileup of arch whimsy, concept albums about their family members, and multipart song structures resembling five-wheeled dune buggies, the Furnaces have long fallen onto the “vegemite and black licorice” end of the taste spectrum — those that love them do so fanatically, and those that loathe them do so with their entire being.
Eleanor’s sunny, accessible first solo album breezily shatters this détente with a single hair-flip. She wrote it, as she has said in interviews, to recapture the memory and spirit of her first years in NYC, when both city life and music seemed imbued with limitless possibility. She has done a remarkably evocative, economical job bottling this feeling: in 10 songs that fall inside a slim 40 minutes, she brings to life a community theatre vision of New York as oversized village, peopled with friendly eccentrics. If you ever fell in love with the Big Apple of Paul Simon’s fondly dyspeptic musical imagination, Last Summer will feel like a warm greeting from an old friend.
The opening song, “My Mistakes,” follows Friedberger in one long tracking shot as she rides her bicycle over the Brooklyn Bridge into the city. Her lyrics chart her progress with a faux-artless, unrhymed diary-tumble that is actually murder to pull off confidently: “You know I do my best thinking when I’m flying down the bridge… Hope I don’t crash like that night last summer,” she croons. The bike becomes a motor for Friedberger’s observations and insights: she passes a girl, and sings abstractedly, “She’s got kind of a native vibe before that was so cool/She’s got kind of a native vibe before I even knew who was who.”
Last Summer concerns itself entirely with these non-concerns: it is, after all, a snapshot of a young twentysomething girl’s first few years in the city, a period of minimum responsibility and maximum aimlessness and frivolity. Lots of great rock albums get made about this soupy mind-state: EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints, most recently, is like the horror-show flip side of Eleanor’s cheerful guided tour. There’s a dusky fondness in Friedberger’s voice, however, that gives lie to the intervening years. The music, meanwhile, jettisons all of Fiery Furnaces’ formal puzzles and runs on lean, thrumming folk rock. The result feels like a finger-painted take on the Pretenders’ “Brass In Pocket,” and it’s the ideal tonic for a bout of quarter-life malaise.