“You know I do my best thinking when I’m flying down the bridge.” So begins Eleanor Friedberger’s “My Mistakes”, the first single from solo debut Last Summer. We join her journey in media res, in her car, and she’s “humming to [herself]”.
At first, the effect is much like any other detour in a song by the Fiery Furnaces — Eleanor’s regular gig and the band she shares with virtuoso brother Matthew. Most of the Fiery Furnaces’ catalog (notably the unsurpassed Blueberry Boat and Rehearsing My Choir) zigs and zags with such frequency through genres, time signatures, and narrative perspectives, that it’s all a listener can do to keep the proverbial car on the road.
And while “My Mistakes” kicks off Last Summer as if Eleanor took an off ramp from “Tropical Iceland”, the album’s unique identity quickly emerges. This is no attempt to seize or freeze the Fiery Furnaces mojo. Her alluring front woman qualities remain intact; they come into sharper focus. While the character in “My Mistakes” is determined to learn lessons from past errors, the singer herself radiates a mixture of confidence and openness that is the direct effect of the Fiery Furnaces’ many musical triumphs.
Unlike Matthew’s solo forays, which amplify his compositional idiosyncrasies (see his current Solos series featuring one instrument per album), Eleanor has chosen an immediately pleasant pop/rock mode and found many colors within it. For instance, “Inn of the Seventh Ray” has numerous numerical antecedents in past Friedberger songs “Seven Silver Curses”, “Seventh Loop Highway”, and “Cabaret of the Seven Devils”, but the song stands out within this already impressive run by virtue of its comparative unfussiness. A couple of piano and guitar chords repeat, and are embellished, and longing echoes in the singer’s voice. Three quarters of the way through the song, nearly all of that is scaled way back, and she sings over some background “ooohs” that are surprisingly haunted and affecting.
Another sad, slow folk number called “Scenes from Bensonhurst” reminds me of Rear Window, offering glimpses of several characters, out of context and therefore endlessly intriguing. Eleanor’s own character in these songs is a wanderer, similar to the “I” of several Fiery Furnaces numbers. Here, however, she sounds more genuinely invested in the observations and remembrances. Perhaps these lyrics are actually closer to her personal experiences. Key to these songs’ effect is their emotional appeal, unfettered by intricate song construction. For the sake of comparison, consider that Blueberry Boat’s most deeply felt, unguarded moment (“1917”’s “So I asked Dad, Why can’t we ever win, ever win, once?”) arrives one hour into that album. Such moments occur throughout Last Summer, with “One-Month Marathon” specifically reiterating that father-child tension over loose percussion, acoustic guitar, and a few swirling effects.
While songs like “Scenes from Bensonhurst” and “One-Month Marathon” deliver a healthy dose of melancholy, the album’s overall variety injects pleasure at just the right moments. The very funky “Roosevelt Island”, with Commodores/”Machine Gun” textures, is a perfect match to Eleanor’s speak-singing style (long familiar to Fiery Furnaces fans). “I Won’t Fall Apart on You Tonight”, which boasts some subtle backmasking effects that link the album to Bitter Tea, serves as this collection’s girl group tune. Eleanor’s agile voice can do that, too, thank you very much.
There’s a particularly catchy Fiery Furnaces song called “Here Comes the Summer”, which dates back to the first few years of the band’s career. On it, Eleanor sings, “We’ll have to wait until it’s June. I’ve been waiting since I don’t know when and now it finally seems about to start. I swear, I swear, that I will do my part.” With Last Summer, she more than makes good on that promise and provides this summer with one of its most satisfying releases.