Eleanor Friedberger is a singer songwriter originally from a suburb outside of Chicago, and now based in Brooklyn. She gained notoriety as half of the indie rock band The Fiery Furnaces (along with her brother Matthew Friedberger) where Eleanor shares songwriting duties and provides the majority of vocals for the group. While working on an album of cover songs for The Fiery Furnaces, the seeds for a solo album were born. She began recording under her own name in the summer of 2010, and her solo debut Last Summer was released in July 2011 on Merge Records. While in the same vein as the Fiery Furnaces, Last Summer is a more straight forward singer/songwriter album in the tradition of 70s folk rock legends. The album was well received, seen as a more approachable take on the zany feel of the Fiery Furnaces.
Whenever a band’s major creative force makes a solo album, you have to wonder: is this an explosive personality angrily breaking off? Are they hoping to get all the glory under their own name? These egotistical motivations have made for some of the most dramatic and mysterious stories in rock history. Eleanor Friedberger has branched off from her main gig as one half of the duo the Fiery Furnaces, but as could be expected from the polite world of indie rock, there’s no evidence of drama here. Friedberger’s solo work is a chance for her to step back from the wayyyy down the rabbit hole eccentricity of the Fiery Furnaces, and craft a record inspired by the classic funk and folk rock greats of the 70s. A few tracks on her 2011 solo debut Last Summer do recall the wacky rock of the Furnaces, but Friedberger has largely toned it down, crafting a sunny album of jumpy piano ballads, funky pop and folk singalongs. Last Summer is a restless album stylistically, dancing around genres, but tied together by a consistent 70s feel. The music is easy going, but underneath are lyrics communicating confliction and nostalgia. The result is complex, carefully written songs that you can enjoy as summery folk rock or something more. First track “My Mistakes” sets the breezy vibe for the rest of the album, begging to be played in the car with the windows down and air rolling in. Friedberger pounds out steady piano chords throughout the song like a polite version of Austin rockers Spoon, and busts out one of the album's best vocal hooks in the chorus. “Roosevelt Island” (referring to the thin island between the Upper East Side and Brooklyn) flies the funk flag high with a classic gurgling funk bass line and Friedberger's sing-talk vocals, sounding like a female David Byrne. Elsewhere on the record she sneaks in other 70s touch marks like atmospheric saxophones (“Owl's Head Park”) and a Cat Stevens style folk-rock singalong (“Early Earthquake). Last Summer balances Friedberger's quirkiness with exciting restlessness, and backs it all up with her songwriting chops. It's got a lot you can unravel, but ultimately is one of the most enjoyable folk rock albums of the year.