First things first, I suppose. This comes from the “there’s a bathroom on the right” school of rock lyric mishearing. The first two times I listened to Eleanor Friedberger’s sparkling new record Last Summer I thought she was singing “you promised to take me to the end of the Seventh grade” on track two, “Inn of the Seventh Ray.” Hey, I know, all I had to do was look at the track listing, right? But by golly, before I came to enjoy the real thing (listening properly to the lyrics and all) I constructed a whole emotional world around Ms. Friedberger reconstructing her life, revisiting some pivotal moment in, well, Seventh grade.
Lord, I digress. Of course the real “Inn of the Seventh Ray” is even better. With quiet, urgent repetition Friedberger sings of a certain someone who promised to take her to the titular destination, but who couldn’t, wouldn’t, didn’t know the way. The mounting disappointment is musically palpable, and the song could be about anything from the obvious (a desired journey never taken) to a metaphor for romantic, erotic, or existential failure.
Last Summer is like that. With her reflective, eccentric travelogues Eleanor Friedberger tells you plenty, but always leave plenty open to interpretation. Hers is a talent for invitation. And good art does that; it opens, it invites, it doesn’t dictate.
With her brother Matthew Friedberger, in the Fiery Furnaces, Eleanor has already put together an impressive legacy. This isn’t the place for an exegesis on the Furnace’s catalog. Suffice it to say, their 2003 debut Gallowsbird’s Bark remains one of the most striking debuts of the past decade. Their shape-shifting sounds stopped on a dime, reminding of Captain Beefheart one moment, the Jefferson Airplane the next, or Kurt Weill or English folk balladry after that. At the center of Matthew’s weird, but wonderful soundscapes were the self-possessed, dramatic vocals of sister Eleanor. A prolific band, the Furnaces have amassed quite a catalog in a relatively short time. Following their own dynamic and idiosyncratic logic, the band has, if anything, become more (for lack of a better word) direct over their last releases, especially with 2009’s I’m Going Away. In a way it paved the way for Last Summer.
And a good thing that was. From the quirky and engaging opening of “My Mistakes” through the sweet, giddy and revealing denouement of “Early Earthquake,” Last Summer is a pleasure from start to finish. Friedberger incorporates her influences like Duchamp-ian ready-mades. From Dylan Heaney’s blast of Clemmons tenor on “My Mistakes” to the Mind Games plod of “Glitter Gold” or the Motown meets Suicide bounce and throb of “I Wont’ Fall Apart on You Tonight” (of course the title is close to Dylan’s “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight”) Friedberger plugs in moments and memes strategically for just resonant musical and emotional impact.
The almost narrative of “My Mistakes” is no less haunting for its’ rambling quality. In the third verse alone Friedberger condenses the following action – She’s acosted by something like terrorists, speaks to her mother on her cell phone (mom tells her “to run”), finally to be rescued by some Cali dudes in Brooklyn (“I swear they, I swear they, I swear they saved my life”). The whole tale told in 4:29 and with just the hint of intensity that elevates it beyond the implacability of describing a walk around the block. Friedberger’s vocal timbre and diction recall Patti Smith, but without Smith’s abandon and release. Still, Friedberger displays a wide emotional range without Smith’s extravagance (not that I’m knocking Patti’s extravagance).
And lyrically Friedberger’s eye for emotional nuance, domestic detail and landscape is dramatic. In lieu of really reaching the “Inn of the Seventh Ray” she settles for watching “ ‘Footloose’ with the biggest bottle of vodka in the world.” Well, it’s one way to assuage disappointment. “Scenes from Bensonhurst,” like most of her impressions of Brooklyn, roots itself in the timeless and iconic Brooklyn while skirting entirely any name checks of Greenpoint or Williamsburg hipster hot spots.
In “One Month Marathon” Friedberger seeks permanency in ruins and stone masonry - in old, familiar building materials; and at the same time she sings that the marathon in question is “ending on Sunday … and for my last ensemble I will wear nothing at all.” In nakedness, literally and figuratively, is a yearning for truth, and intimacy. All this built on the subtlest foundation of spare, elegant guitar and drums. “Roosevelt Island” finds the artist easing into an effortless alterna-funk, and remarking that “you made me feel like I was more like you than me, and I liked that,” as connection is set against a backdrop of urban pleasures and dislocations.
Most of the playing on Last Summer is by Friedberger (guitar, harmonica, keys, percussion) and Eric Broucek (bass, guitar, keys, percussion). Broucek is credited as producer, engineer and mixer. His work (at Stickydisc Recording - Greenpoint Avenue, Brooklyn), is largely responsible for Last Summer’s richly varied, but aesthetically consistent sound. Jim Orso and Tim Traynor share the drum throne with excellent support and consummate taste.
In music and lyrics, Last Summer is both rich and economical – a journey through one very sharp woman’s ruminations on love, identity, and cultural landscape. As marvelous as her contributions to the Fiery Furnaces are, it still makes you wonder what took her so long to give free rein to her sensibilities. All things in good time, and at this time Last Summer is a great gift to the summer of 2011.