Review Summary: One half of the Fiery Furnaces writes a summer love letter.
If there were a simple way to describe brother-sister duo the Fiery Furnaces, it would be something between quirky and dense. 2005’s EP
was a collection of singles that they followed with a concept album of their grandmother narrating stories in her life the very same year. I’m Going Away
, their relatively uncomplicated last record, was quickly followed by an entire album of each sibling re-recording six songs from I’m Going Away
, for an entirely superfluous “Friedbergers covering Friedbergers” experience. The more visible half of the Furnaces’ first solo album even comes with a somewhat gimmicky back story: Eleanor recorded all ten tracks in the summer of 2010, then put the tapes in storage for release this July. Unnecessary? Without a doubt, but Last Summer
tends to lean more towards the “quirky” end of the spectrum; a frothy blend of Furnaces-esque pop and straightforward ‘70s singer-songwriter sunshine, the perfect yet disposable album for your next beach trip. Preferably with your Ray Bans and V-neck t-shirts comfortably prepped.
If one were to describe Last Summer
as “a Fiery Furnaces album without Matt,” it wouldn’t be too far off the mark. Most of that, however, is purely Eleanor’s fault – the highlight of the Furnaces’ live show with her tongue-twisting lyrics and distinctive accent, her personality dominates Last Summer
, as it should. Friedberger has an uncanny way with words, playing around with erratic turns of meter and rhyme to fit in her verbose tales of Brooklyn explorations and Los Angeles meeting spots. It makes me wonder what a Fiery Furnaces rap album would sound like, given Eleanor’s ability to squeeze every last syllable out of a verse. Last Summer
is a travel album, and thanks to Friedberger’s talents it’s an evocative one. The trippy “Inn of the Seventh Ray” chronicles a relationship via a Topanga canyon hotspot, while songs like “Scenes from Bensonhurst” and the funky “Roosevelt Island” paint a wide-eyed lover’s view of New York City as seen from the outside. There’s nothing overly glamorous about it, though; Friedberger’s L.A. and New York are placid and hazy backgrounds to her (rather standard) relationship tropes.
It comes together, then, as decidedly more low-key than any Fiery Furnaces album and with an effortless, almost lazy summer vibe. Last Summer
is certainly a relaxing album, but to call it boring would be off the mark. From “Inn of the Seventh Ray” and its trippy vocal echoes to the sugary synthpop of “My Mistakes,” Last Summer
mimics shades of Fiery Furnaces albums old and new, particularly in the twisted structure and meandering horns of “Owl’s Head Park.” Friedberger has a more polished touchstone in mind for much of the rest of the record, however; the heavy piano chords of “I Won’t Fall Apart on You Tonight” and the revved-up acoustic strums on closer “Early Earthquake” call up Fleetwood Mac and sunny SoCal rock with nary a cocaine tray in sight. The lovely “One-Month Marathon,” meanwhile, is all Friedberger, gentle chords and whispery drums highlighting a nostalgic look back at love. In any other album it would stick out like a sore thumb, the requisite “acoustic ballad,” but with Friedberger it’s just an accepted change of pace, one that readily adds another dimension to Last Summer’s
sound without sounding contrived. That never knowing what to expect is just what clearly differentiates Friedberger from your average solo project and Last Summer
from your regular Starbucks counter fare. It straddles that difficult line between accessible and adventurous, making for a fine stopgap between Fiery Furnaces records and an excellent summer album regardless of the year.