Eleanor Friedberger and her brother Matthew have earned a reputation as wildly inventive progressive indie rockers as the Fiery Furnaces, having crafted a bustling catalogue of whimsical albeit highly ambitious albums from inspirations ranging from Captain Beefheart to the Who and Os Mutantes. And when spun off onto his own solo records, such as 2006’s Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School, Matthew has followed that instinct even deeper down its arty rabbit hole. Yet more recently, the Furnaces’ albums have eased into a more accessible, easily digestible kind of art-pop, yielding their most straightforward outing on 2009’s I’m Going Away. And on Last Summer, her first solo effort for Merge Records, Eleanor Friedberger continues to follow a path toward more restrained and elegant songwriting that’s identifiably her own.
There are few spastic Moog melodies to speak of on Last Summer. Only one song stretches past five minutes, and the arrangements on the album don’t so much opt for prog grandeur as the more groove-based indie rock sound of a band like Spoon. And when left to a simpler, easier sound, Friedberger’s songwriting style is given enough breathing room to shine without need for excessive ornamentation. In fact, these are easily the prettiest songs she’s penned, an assemblage of ten gorgeous pop tunes that retain the creative and versatile style of the Furnaces while casting aside the drama, for the most part.
Friedberger kicks off the album with a humble strum, soon blowing open the simple and irresistibly infectious pop sheen of “My Mistakes,” easing into the choral lament of “I thought he’d live for my mistakes… I thought he’d let me in for one last time.” “Inn of the Seventh Ray” features just the right touch of reverb, while “Heaven,” much like the Talking Heads track of the same name, does a lot with a little, revealing a great deal of beauty and grace in just two chords. And “Roosevelt Island,” the album’s somewhat epic centerpiece, is the song’s funkiest track, with synths gurgling beneath a streamlined melody and Friedberger’s reminiscences of a visit to an amusement park.
Nothing on Last Summer feels forced or overthought, it all just simply works. And it truly goes to show how refreshing a simpler, more hook-laden approach can be after a number of records so jam-packed with ideas they threaten to explode. Eleanor Friedberger has never displayed any shortage of creativity, but here she proves that playing it straight is sometimes the most radical course you can follow.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.