Release Date: Jun 4, 2013
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Alternative Singer/Songwriter
I am hard-pressed to think of many contemporary artists who are as literal, as direct, or as achingly sentimental as Eleanor Friedberger. Of course, by Eleanor Friedberger, I refer to the singer-songwriter, not to the co-founder of The Fiery Furnaces. The latter figure has long been a beguiling but frustratingly oblique figure, more likely to satisfy herself than her followers, with an insistence on indulgent, anti-epic virtuosity.
When Eleanor Friedberger’s solo debut Last Summer came out in 2010, it sounded like a skittish, unreliable friend delivering on a long-ago-made promise to be there for you more often. Her work with The Fiery Furnaces – hell, the entire dynamic of the band – was too-often filtered through the the kaleidoscopic ramblings of her brother Matt, and Eleanor’s sultry Dylanesque purr had to fight to be heard over whatever restlessness went on underneath it. On Last Summer, Friedberger allowed herself and her music to breathe a little more – songs rode themselves out over little more than two chords and some killer hooks, whilst the lyrics (and the artwork, which showed her face for the first time) eschewed eccentricity and kept things simple, direct, honest and resonant.
Two years ago, when Eleanor Friedberger released her debut solo album, Last Summer, it felt like a rebellion against the music she’d become known for—or at least a reinvention. Friedberger, one half of the quirk-laden indie duo The Fiery Furnaces, had spent most of the 2000s churning out off-kilter, slithering arrangements and vivacious vocals that either left you bobbing your head or scratching it—or sometimes both. The band, which also featured her brother Matthew, had a knack for keeping listeners guessing, as songs would often switch direction midcourse and find a completely new avenue to explore, usually without any sort of map.
As one half of proggy brother-sister duo the Fiery Furnaces, the songs Eleanor Friedberger used to sing sounded like pop music as imagined by Thomas Pynchon, or maybe Carmen Sandiego: tirelessly globe-trotting, breathlessly complex, and just a little cartoony. In a voice that sounds like a perfect cross between Patti Smith, Stephen Malkmus, and a 19th century diction coach, Friedberger spun elaborate, wildly fictional travelogues (usually written by her brother, Matthew); in one Fiery Furnaces song she was a Michigan boat captain defending her cargo of blueberries against South Asian pirates; in another she sang in Innuit, and a few songs later she was also a high school queen bee caught in a labyrinthine plot involving credit card theft. Then something unexpected happened with the release of her first solo album, 2011's terrific Last Summer.
You’ve got to believe it’s no coincidence that Eleanor Friedberger’s second solo effort is named Personal Record, because that’s exactly what it sounds like. Considering that Friedberger made her name as a mischief-making wordsmith in the enigmatic brother-sister duo the Fiery Furnaces, there’s something especially refreshing and welcome about Personal Record achieving Friedberger’s personal record for being personal on a record. While it could sometimes feel like the Fiery Furnaces were trying too hard to make sure everyone knew how offbeat their music was, with the results ranging wildly from brilliantly eccentric to willfully frustrating, going solo has seemingly freed Eleanor Friedberger up to show just what a naturally talented songwriter she is.
Last Summer proved Eleanor Friedberger could more than carry a record outside of the context of the Fiery Furnaces, and its follow-up, Personal Record, boasts a confidence that underscores and heightens the tried-and-true feeling of its songs. As with her work with her brother Matthew Friedberger, a strong '70s vibe informs her solo albums, but where the musical and lyrical allusions to classic rock were just a part of the Furnaces' wild excursions, they make up the backbone of Personal Record's sound. Overflowing with slide guitars, electric pianos, and more flute solos than have been heard in decades, the album's warmth has a traditional bent, but it's far from stodgy.
It’s hard not to think of Eleanor Friedberger as a friend. The most approachable member of Fiery Furnaces, her sophomore solo release Personal Record follows in her 2011 debut’s footsteps; songs sprinkled with intimate fragments of the singer’s life. However, Friedberger has managed to pull a neat trick: even when decorated with specific details (“She was wearing a pair of overalls/So I sang ‘Come On Eileen’”), songs cut straight to the universal emotion behind the action.
The title of The Fiery Furnaces singer/songwriter Eleanor Friedberger's second solo record could be read as a sly wink. Her 2011 debut, Last Summer, was the true Personal Record. That slept-on release was thematically centered on the indie pop musician's inaugural years living in Brooklyn and possessed a lyrical specificity not usually heard in the modern indie rock landscape.
The Friedberger siblings released several excellent albums over the last decade as The Fiery Furnaces, working out a set of off-kilter motifs that made their warm, challenging, idiosyncratic indie rock recognizable only as their own. Since their band’s hiatus in 2011, Matthew and Eleanor have each released solo material that featured those same twitches and flourishes, each clearly essential to their joint signature sound. That fact is immediately apparent in Eleanor’s latest LP, Personal Record, its sun-bleached nostalgia and dryly delivered depths indulging in a bit more AM radio sepia than Fiery Furnaces, yet still clearly of that same language.
The sweet, warm June rain of Eleanor Friedberger’s debut Last Summer in 2011 represented a leap forward from the sometimes cutesy psych of her sibling, seedling band Fiery Furnaces. Quirkier than Miranda July, as heartfelt as punk-rock and boasting a clutch of songs that tightly focused on one hipster summer in NYC, it was a piece of pop finery only matched by the likes of Ted Leo or Elvis Costello at their most accessible. This follow-up, the wonderfully titled Personal Record, deals again with oddball relationships and accounts of strangely synchronized moments, but this time without the specific focus of a period of time and place, instead explaining interpersonal relations through an obsession with music and performance – both hers and the other characters involved in these cryptic snapshots of love.
Listening to the classic-rock jigsaw puzzles Eleanor Friedberger and her brother Matthew create in the Fiery Furnaces can be difficult work. As a solo artist, she's more approachable. Her second LP is full of crisp, jangly indie pop that can suggest Harry Nilsson or a bookish early Stones, and it's packed with stories of young people too mopey and absent-minded to realize the person across the bar is hitting on them.
With the Fiery Furnaces seemingly on ice, the brother-and- sister duo have taken tellingly different approaches to satisfying their creativity. While Matthew’s released a series of eight albums seemingly intended as intellectual experiments, Eleanor Friedberger has taken a more traditional approach, beginning with 2011’s low-key delight of a debut solo record, Last Summer. This follow-up is a more expansive – commercial, even – record than anything either of the Furnaces have put their name to.
A few summers ago, I traveled up to New York City to see Deerhunter perform live at Webster Hall. After slipping between crowds of beanie-wearing beardos and gangs of art school kids talking up a storm about some nobody in some who-gives-a-shit band from nowhere, I managed to get myself up to the balcony of the venue and hide off in a small corner booth that overlooked the stage. Up to that point, it had been a rough day and I was running on an extremely minimal amount of sleep as-is.
Eleanor Friedberger’s Wikipedia entry is scant compared to the nine hundred plus words devoted to Fiery Furnaces, the band she led with her brother Matthew. In their nine-year recording career the Furnaces were productive, releasing eight albums and a smattering of eps and singles. Their work was sometimes direct, sometimes obscure, frequently melodic and engaging, occasionally oblique and difficult.
There’s a moment in Noah Baumbach’s new film Frances Ha where the movie’s frantic, mischievous star Greta Gerwig takes flight. She’s running down the street as David Bowie’s “Modern Love” plays on the soundtrack (in a homage to a similar scene in Leos Carax’s 1986 film Mauvais Sang) and as the song builds her dance moves grow more daring, her legs kicking out, her body leaving the ground as it might just ascend to the top of the Empire State Building and onto the stars. It doesn’t, and the movie soon returns to the grim realities of dead-end jobs, rent trouble and Adam Driver wearing a fedora, but we’ll always have that moment of awkward liberation.
Eleanor Friedberger’s favorite subject is relationships—and, refreshingly, not just the romantic kind. 2011’s Last Summer found her ruminating on a relationship with a city, and all of the smaller emotional pieces to that particular puzzle. Personal Record is, as the title implies, even more focused on the micro. There’s not necessarily a uniting theme on this one, though, as the characters in these songs and their dealings with one another are so sharply defined as to be almost painful.
To finish the recording of her second solo album, Personal Record, Eleanor Friedberger decamped to Los Angeles and says she ‘was just listening to Fleetwood Mac and Neil Young, driving around in a borrowed Prius’. She’s also been talking a lot about 70s songcraft; something you can certainly hear on this album. It’s full of warm West Coast charm and effervescent stories about love.