As one half of the brother-sister duo Fiery Furnaces, Eleanor Friedberger knows her way around complex arrangements and jaunty melodies. Early Fiery Furnaces records-specifically, 2003’s Gallowsbird’s Bark and 2004’s masterful Blueberry Boat, reveled in a host of constantly shifting influences, creating a restless conglomeration of pop music centered around their patented hyper-literate lyrics. With such an abnormal back catalogue, it’s hard not to expect the solo debut from Friedberger to follow in similar footsteps. Though Last Summer doesn’t aspire to the same weirdness of her work with her brother, its more straightforward approach to songwriting may open the doors for unfamiliar listeners.
Last Summer has a very laidback feel to it. Instead of delving into sprawling arrangements and layered compositions, Friedberger delivers each song with a relative clarity. Album opener “My Mistakes” boasts a chunky two-chord guitar line, decorated by strange, fuzzed-out synth blips. It’s one of the best tracks the album has to offer, showcasing Friedberger’s penchant for playful, interconnected storytelling. The funky, bass-heavy “Roosevelt Island” marks another highlight. A sloppy bass line snakes around the sonic space, providing a shaky but infectious foundation for Friedberger’s vocal turns and a shimmering guitar solo. It’s another uncomplicated two-chord progression, and in this case, the simplicity works, allowing breathing room for Friedberger to explore the malleability of her voice. Album closer “Early Earthquake” also synthesizes her strengths nicely, the restless percussive elements at odds with the upbeat electric guitar and appropriately placed hints of harmonica and accordion.
This same approach wears thin on many tracks though. As Last Summer progresses, it’s hard not to hope for the occasional punch to the gut in the form of a dissonant guitar chord or a shifting time signature-the endearing qualities of the Fiery Furnaces. Instead, and somewhat surprisingly given her track record, Friedberger remains relatively complacent. “Inn of the Seventh Ray” boasts a spacey title, but it’s a misnomer of the music contained within. The acoustic guitar strums and jangly piano lines lazily move around the track, never settling on much of a melody or musical direction. Elsewhere, Last Summer proves to be an exercise in sluggish pacing; “Owl’s Head Park” is a lethargic, synth-based track that never moves beyond it’s initial quirk, while “One-Month Marathon” doesn’t have enough lyrical muster to forgive the underwhelming bare-bones approach to creating atmosphere.
Though Last Summer might serve as a nice contrast to the sometimes-frustrating (but brilliant) opus Blueberry Boat, exchanging a wandering sense of genre dabbling for a more undemanding approach, it can’t help but feel like an disappointing effort from an artist normally brimming with creative restlessness. Though there are hints of Friedberger’s uncanny ability to anchor a complex, constantly shifting arrangement throughout this record, there’s nary a track that feels fully accomplished – “My Mistakes” being the exception. As a whole, it’s a pleasant-enough trip through the frameworks with which Friedberger creates her own unique vision. Too bad that vision is too muddled to make Last Summer more than a footnote in her rapidly expanding and impressive discography.