In many ways, it feels like Eleanor Friedberger has been on tour for almost all of 2016 so far. Indeed, a check of her schedule reveals a virtually nonstop string of dates from February through mid-June. In the span of just over two months she’s now played two shows in and around the Chicagoland area, the second of which took place this past Friday at SPACE in Evanston. I was lucky enough to be on hand for that SPACE show, and am pleased to share some photos as well as a few thoughts on the evening.
Friedberger recorded her latest album New View at a farm in upstate New York with the band Icewater. They’ve joined her for this tour, not only opening shows with their own material but pulling double duty as her backing band. Naturally then, more than half her set was comprised of New View songs. She performed nearly every track on the album, along with recent one-off single “False Alphabet City”. All of the new material sounded great, and retained the classic early 70s vibes of The Band and Harry Nilsson without ever seeming tired or unoriginal. Friedberger has enough personality and lyrical prowess to pull every song into unexpected directions, and that dexterity is invigorating even when she’s aimlessly sauntering around the stage.
Admittedly it was also great to hear some older material too. There seemed to be a somewhat renewed focus on Friedberger’s first solo effort Last Summer, which featured some of her catchiest and funkiest material courtesy of songs like “Roosevelt Island” and “My Mistakes”. While the latter song felt just a touch off without a saxophone to add spice, it was still great to hear as a personal favorite of mine. Speaking of personal, 2013’s Personal Record was least represented overall in the set, though having “Stare at the Sun” pop up during the encore was a great way to end the night. Those electric and energetic anthems were missed, but considering the 90% seated, more middle-aged crowd at SPACE, might not have set the right tone for the show anyways.
After the show, Friedberger and Icewater stuck around the merch table to sell and sign things, as good artists do. Among the fans and well-wishers was a man with his young daughter, who couldn’t have been more than 10 or 12 years old. The girl talked about how much she loved the show, and asked for a photo. The two of them stood side-by-side and leaned up against a door, striking cool poses. What caught my eye was how Friedberger never stopped staring at this girl, a huge grin on her face the entire time. This is who she makes music for. Maybe one day that young girl will be inspired enough pick up a guitar and start writing songs of her own. One can only hope.
For years now, we’ve stood by and simply watched (or listened) as Matthew Friedberger unleashed solo record after solo record during brief breaks from his main band The Fiery Furnaces, of which he is a main part of along with his sister Eleanor. Well, technically speaking, Matthew has only released a couple solo albums, the double discer that was “Winter Women and Holy Ghost Language School” back in 2006. This year though he’s freaking out and unleashing 8 albums of original material as part of a project called “Solos”, where he spends an entire record with just a single instrument and his own voice. If you separate out all of those various LPs in addition to the ones still forthcoming in 2011, he’ll have put out more solo full lengths than he has with The Fiery Furnaces. All the while, Eleanor Friedberger has done nothing on her own, leaving many curious as to what she might come up with were she to pursue such a path. Well, wonder no more, because last summer she recorded her first solo album. Now here we are, one year later, and that record is finally out, and very naturally titled “Last Summer”.
Anyone that’s ever heard a Fiery Furnaces album before knows what Eleanor is like behind the microphone. Her vocals are done in an almost sing-speak fashion, and that’s primarily due to the extensive amount of lyrics she’s got to spit out within the confines of a typical song. She writes the stuff too, and tells stories both real and fictional concerning her own life or the lives of others. On “Last Summer”, those hallmarks remain, though the stories she tells across this album are 100% true things that have happened to her. Not that it makes much of a difference in the end, except in making close analysis of the lyrics that much more poignant. She talks about a failed attempt to rekindle an old relationship on opening track and first single “My Mistakes”, even though the song itself is such a delightful slice of synth pop pie that you’d imagine it’d have to be about something more upbeat and fun. On the funky “Roosevelt Island” she details a trip she made to the New York neighborhood, leading off with an anecdote about encountering a doppelganger. “We saw a picture of a girl with the same hair and I posed next to her/Made a great photo but I never thought I’d see her again/Didn’t really ever want to see her again,” she sings with the most rapid-fire delivery possible. Dealing with the specific time frame of when the album was recorded, “Glitter Gold Year” mentions 2010 many a time, to the point where Eleanor begins to play around with just HOW she sings it. But she’s also apparently not happy with said “glitter gold year”, beacuse she also often repeats, “you said it wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s worse”. Seeing as how “Last Summer” is a recording of tales from 2010, there most definitely is no way that’s getting erased anymore, not that we’d want it to anyways. Even the most experienced New Yorker can sometimes get lost in such a large city, and “Owl’s Head Park” is an amusing tale about how going to pick up a custom-made bicycle left her at the titular park and unsure of how to get home. “The boys on the F train said that frame was fresh/it was the color blue/but I didn’t know my way/so I couldn’t get home to you,” are a few lines that emphasize just how Friedberger is able to keep a plot moving along while also providing miniscule details that enhance what’s already there. It’s a big part of what makes The Fiery Furnaces so unique and exciting, and it plays the same role on her solo effort, though with slightly different sonic results.
The two separate Friedberger halves of The Fiery Furnaces work so well together because of how their individual dynamics come into play. Matthew is the guy who puts together all the weird sonic experiments, while Eleanor writes and sings behind those avant-pop sounds. Rare is the Fiery Furnaces track that is straightforward and simply structured. The closest moments you’ll get to pure pop from the band comes through in tracks like “Single Again,” “Here Comes the Summer”, “Benton Harbor Blues” and “Tropical Iceland”. If you loved those moments, or if they’re some of the only songs you actually like from the band because the rest is too strange, then “Last Summer” is the record you’ve been waiting for. The songs almost always hold a typical verse-chorus-verse structure, and the oddest instrument used is either the saxophone or harmonica. Actually, the saxophone solo that closes out “Owl’s Head Park” is one of the most fascinating moments on an album that’s by no means lacking in them. The vibe is very much 70s pop throughout, and various aspects of it show up on certain tracks. “Roosevelt Island” mines the territory of past greats like Stevie Wonder or The Commodores. There’s a nice bit of psychedelia on “Inn of the Seventh Ray”, particularly when Eleanor’s vocals are hit with the echo effect and the synths are bleeping about like they’re floating within that same ether. “I Won’t Fall Apart On You Tonight” has some more fun with the vocals, creating some splendid backing harmonies that essentially make it a girl group song. And a pair of beautiful acoustic guitar-based folk ballads turn up as well courtesy of “Scenes from Bensonhurst” and “One-Month Marathon”. Though there are obviously some personal instrumental touches in there, at their core they recall some of the amazing folk records from artists like Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez. There may be a mixture of diverse styles across these 10 tracks, but Eleanor’s own quirks along with a serious knack for crafting memorable hooks makes everything work, even if she never pushes too far in one direction or the other.
Weighing “Last Summer” against all the other music with a Friedberger name stamped on it is a tough thing to do. Matthew’s influence has undoubtedly been a good on for the sake of originality and experimentation, but there’s something to be said for exceptionally strong writing and powerfully addictive pop songs. “My Mistakes” factors in pretty well to be one of the best, catchiest things you’ll hear this calendar year, and there’s a secret sort of delight to be had from condensing the weirdness of The Fiery Furnaces into something wholly pure and easily digestible. The mood of the album too, given its summer release date, makes for a perfect soundtrack to one of those lazy days hanging out at home with the sunshine streaming in through the windows. Yeah it works best in summer, but even in the winter it can probably be used to warm you up a little bit and bring out that innate longing to travel to the Inn of the Seventh Ray or ride the Cyclone on Coney Island. These may be Eleanor’s memories of things that have happened to her, but the way that she spins those tales tend to put us there with her. Honestly, there are far worse ways to spend your money and 40 minutes of your life. While the album likely lacks the staying power of a “Blueberry Boat”, the immediacy and lack of a learning curve make it special in its own way. Matthew may be releasing 8 albums this year, but it’s doubtful that any one of them will be as lovely and wonderful as “Last Summer” is.