Eleanor Friedberger has always been the id of Fiery Furnaces, the free-spirited traveler whose casual observations, lightly digested, take shape in surreal, discontinuous stories. She has always been the one who navigated her brothers’ abrupt, shape-shifting melodies, laying a guide-rope of pop through Escher-esque puzzles of musical structure. Moreover, she has always been the one standing outside the whole enterprise, rolling her eyes, putting a half-twist on things so you can’t take them literally, can not, in fact, take them too seriously. Talk to Matt Friedberger about Fiery Furnaces and you’ll get a long, rambling discourse on influences, conceptual underpinnings and the meaning of art in a transient world. Talk to Eleanor and you’ll get a string of one-liners and put-downs. Whatever Fiery Furnaces was, and it has changed from album to album, she has never seemed to buy in entirely.
It is surprising, then, that Eleanor Friedberger’s first solo album, Last Summer, is so direct and straightforward. There’s an organic, personal vibe to these songs, couched even as they are in the rackety rhythms and off-kilter synths of Fiery Furnaces’ idiom. She’s connecting in a very un-ironic way with her material, as if it matters to her, as if it’s maybe even true. Where Fiery Furnaces makes an art form out of artifice and boundless complication, Friedberger, on her own, seems grounded in actual experience. Her melodies are charming, easy to pin down and hard to get out of your head. (I’m hearing “The Inn of the Seventh Ray” right now, over and over, to the point where I’d maybe like it to stop.) Her arrangements are never spare, but not baroque either. There’s a sort of instinct guiding Last Summer, a gut feeling, rather than Blueberry Boat’s cerebral machinations. “You know I do my best thinking when I’m flying down the bridge,” Friedberger observes, in the very first lyric, of the very first song (“My Mistakes”), and it underscores a clarity that comes, perhaps, from not over-considering things.
Not that this disc doesn’t have its share of tangled narratives, of dense musical references, of well-populated arrangements. It’s just that there seems to be a home base to return to in these songs, a central riff, groove or chorus that ties things together in a sensible way. “Roosevelt Island” flips through swatches of instrumental color — 1970s funk, slippery string-sampled disco, beat poetry, songwriter pop — restless, twitchy, difficult, but always settling back into the song’s main hook. You’d follow Friedberger through any amount of gnarly difficulty to get back to that “Singing it / Keep singing it” pay-off.
Even so, the best songs are the most straightforward ones. “I Won’t Fall Apart on You Tonight” has a ringing, 1960s Motown clarity, its complications pared down to anthemic simplicity. “Owl’s Head Park,” late in the album, follows a meandering narrative through orchestra swells, sax honks and junkyard clatter-beats. Yet, it’s got a lovely thread of nostalgia running through it, an un-conflicted connection with stray images from the past. Even if you can’t relate to the story itself — buying a bike on Coney Island — you can get pulled into the mood, the regret that these experiences we have, meaningful at the time, fade so rapidly into fuzzy memories.
It’s like Fiery Furnaces with more heart and less irony … and that’s not a bad thing at all.