Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer

written by: September 14, 2011
Eleanor Friedberger - Last Summer Release Date: July 12, 2011


Pop music is at an interesting place at the moment. Mainly because, if and when it is considered at all, the various degrees of its legitimacy are spread out all over the place. Take Justin Timberlake, for example. At some point in the last four years, we came to realize that it was officially no longer cool to hate him or his music. But that idea is beginning to age, and we now find ourselves wondering what the most respectable way to perceive him is. Is it more respectable to appreciate his largely unrelated comedic abilities and regard his music with fond nostalgia, saving our real respect for other artists on the pop spectrum?

Consider these: The Dodos make pop music, and it’s arguable that they are solidly respectable to enjoy publicly while encountering minimal wrath from fellow music lovers. Katy Perry makes pop music, and she is respectable and hilarious to enjoy un-ironically. Robyn is somewhere in between, and musicophiles will laugh accordingly.

And now there’s Eleanor Friedberger. Friedberger—sister of the brother-sister (“indie rock,” declares Wikipedia) duo The Fiery Furnaces—has released her first solo album called Last Summer that belongs very much on the respectable side of the pop music spectrum. Regardless of how cringe-worthy the phrase “pop music” may or may not be at this point, Friedberger’s work is simply killer.

There are a couple of key aspects that push the album toward the serious, quality- and art-conscious side of the pop spectrum—namely the lyrics and production—that fall under the album’s glowing, unifying theme: memory.

Friedberger’s lyrics are rich in memory, teeming with imagery and romance. She writes great poetry, complete with the requisite ability to move listeners and inspire knowing swoons. She melds the specificity of her references (“I imagine Governor’s Island as “Shutter Island”/Imagine Christopher Walken as a dancer named Ronnie/It just don’t seem right”) with the universality of vulnerable and quiet yearning. These concrete memories at times act as dense webs through which listener cannot quite break through to share the same mental space with her, but that seems entirely appropriate to the theme and function of memory itself; its true presence forever lies just out of our reach.

Her delicate, softly wavering voice is not particularly stunning in terms of range, power or raw emotional conveyance (versus, say, Fiona Apple) but it is wildly trustworthy, which—given the storytelling theme of the album—is nearly perfect.

Friedberger is a lovely spokeswoman (“His mom went blind with the third baby/Oh shit, that’s crazy”) for the act of retroactively looking at behaviors, decisions and random happenings of the past. Her delivery is brave, rich, young, gracefully unsure and fittingly hurt, yet still detached enough to keep good—if at times slightly ahead or anxious—timing to this unique, piano-driven, indie-pop rock that is entirely her own.

“One Month Marathon” features Friedberger’s voice at its loveliest. She is closest to us at this point—as is her heart, making it the album’s only wound; its one single outright admittance of sadness. Her voice whispers with gentle strength, and her lyrics plead for her vulnerability to be reciprocated (“Can I see through your mirror?/Can I come in your store, baby?”). It is a quiet standout.

What Friedberger’s lyrics do for cultivating the album’s nostalgia factor, the production does for transforming its catchiness into enriching addictiveness. The sparse, esoteric musical details that pepper Last Summer create divinely infectious moments in each song; moments that feel redeeming to rewind and hear again. These details stick in your craw in the most delightful, heartbursting way. For example, on “Inn of the Seventh Ray,” the combination of the echoing vocals, the clean and punchy piano sounds (seemingly recorded in a small room), and the hungry distortion of electric guitar take it from solid pop songwriting to smart, magical, memory-laden realms.

Some works of art have endings so unique and fitting that they transcend any and all predictability. When those gorgeous final 41 seconds of Last Summer fall upon the listener, a smile will be the only appropriate response. It’s hard not to by happy when Eleanor Friedberger is making such solid pop music, and that it continues to open up even further with each listen.

Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer Tracklist:

  1. “My Mistakes”
  2. “Inn of the Seventh Ray”
  3. “Heaven”
  4. “Scenes From Bensonhurst”
  5. “Roosevelt Island”
  6. “Glitter Gold Year”
  7. “One-Month Marathon”
  8. “I Won’t Fall Apart on You Tonight”
  9. “Owl’s Head Park”
  10. “Early Earthquake”