The Fiery Furnaces have made some crazy music over the years. From the epic genre-hopping of Blueberry Boat to the restless experimentation featured on albums like Bitter Tea and Rehearsing My Choir, the Furnaces have been happy to reveal the many tricks up their sleeves, including but not limited to: studio wizardry, catchy choruses, backwards lyrics and spoken-word passages, jolty versus, epic narratives, foreign languages, and just about every instrument you can throw in front of a microphone. While never surrendering their identity, siblings Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger have always been eager to try on new genres in the dressing room that is their studio.
It’s easy to forget, however, that the Furnaces started off making relatively straightforward barroom rock. Their discography is currently bookended by their two most “classic rock” releases, the rowdy Gallowsbird’s Bark and the pleasant (if unremarkable) I’m Going Away. The reason I mention this is because listeners expecting another “My Dog Was Lost But Now He’s Found” from Eleanor Friedberger’s solo debut, Last Summer, are going to be disappointed.
The sound here is surprisingly tender: we get chirpy piano on “Inn of the Seventh Ray,” lite-FM keyboards on “Glitter Gold Year,” intimate acoustic guitar on the gorgeous “One-Month Marathon.” This is a defiantly soft-rock release; Eleanor finds herself in the strange position of making a statement by releasing music that’s more traditional than quirky. What’s more, most of the songs here are built on two-chord alternations. On lead single and opening track “My Mistakes,” for instance, synth lines and sax solos come and go, but the entire song is just two chords resolving themselves over and over. To be sure, it’s impressive that Friedberger can wring so many different moods from a single repeated musical phrase, but this repetition is also the album’s Achilles’ heel. Songs like “Heaven” and “Glitter Gold Year” never take off the way one would hope. None of the songs here are long enough to have to slog through, but this stagnancy quickly grows tiresome. The eighth track, “I Won’t Fall Apart On You Tonight,” roars to life with a more complex chord progression than that found in the preceding songs; it’s no coincidence that it’s also one of the most memorable tracks here.
If the melodies sometimes feel too restrained for their own good, at least the lyrics are quintessentially Furnaces-esque. Indeed, there is no shortage of the strange and memorable lyrical asides, allusions, and characterizations that have long been Eleanor’s trademark. “Her mom went blind from the third baby — oh shit, that’s crazy,” she mentions on “Scenes from Bensonhurst.” On “Inn of the Seventh Ray,” she says she plans to “watch Footloose with the biggest bottle of vodka in the world.” On the funky, bass-infused “Roosevelt Island,” she hurriedly speak-sings that she “brought my camera and I have a shot of us, you and that guy who died down in Philly, on the beach.” And on “Owl’s Head Park,” she lets us know that “the boys on the F train said that [bicycle] frame was fresh; it was the color blue.” Last Summer is aptly titled, primarily concerning itself with the power of past experiences and how those experiences become fictions in our mind. The snatches of memories, experiences, and fictions Eleanor constantly supplies make sense in this context. “I want to erase it, but I can’t” she says in reference to the year 2010 on “Glitter Gold Year,” though it might as well be the entire album’s slogan.
Speaking of memories, it’s difficult to not remember the apexes of the Furnaces’ discography while listening to Last Summer. I recall the harp-accented cartoonish surrealism of Widow City’s “My Egyptian Grammar,” the skewed rockabilly shuffle of Blueberry Boat’s “Straight Street,” and the indelibly bittersweet electronic of “Here Comes the Summer” from EP. Above all, I remember how the Fiery Furnaces are always willing to take chances with their music; I wish Eleanor Friedberger had done the same on Last Summer. Instead, she plays it safe, weaving interesting tales to the tune of surprisingly average music. That’s fine, but playing it safe rarely makes for a good story.