By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
A year or so ago—around the time her band the Fiery Furnaces finished touring behind 2009's I'm Going Away—Eleanor Friedberger had some time on her hands.
"I decided, 'I have to make a solo album. It's now or never,' " she says of the six weeks she took to write the songs on Last Summer, her debut on Merge. "We were at this crazy pace, going, going, going," she says of the band, which she co-pilots with her brother Matt. "I really had to just sit down and put my head down. My brother and I are both firm believers [that] people aren't just struck by inspiration. You really just have to sit down and work. That's how you make an album or write a song."
Even when the results are weird—which, happily, Last Summer is not. But "weird" isn't precisely a new direction. Eleanor started the Fiery Furnaces with Matt at the beginning of the '00s, and on their 2003 debut, Gallowsbird's Bark, she wrote and sang in elliptical, hard-nosed fashion. What followed was the most willfully eccentric run of the '00s, starting with 2004's Blueberry Boat—on which Matt essentially took over the lyrics and steered them into multi-part suites, jarring tonal shifts, and lyrics that could turn willfully obtuse—and climaxing with 2008's audaciously stitched-together "live" album, Remember. In 2009, they released I'm Going Away, which returned to the accessible classic-rockiness found on their debut.
"There's a real push-pull between them," Jason Loewenstein, who plays bass in the Fiery Furnaces and guitar in Sebadoh, says of Eleanor and Matt. "My perspective is that she'd like things to be more conventional at times. Their different take on things is incredibly important to why their music is so good. He really wants to see them get more challenging, and I feel like she's asking him, 'Why does it have to be so messed up?' "
Not that the siblings are particularly gentle with one another. "We say whatever is on our minds," Eleanor says with a laugh about Matt. "We're quick to fight, but even quicker to make up—there's not even any making up required. I don't know what that comes out of. We've always been that way. It's not just since we've been in a band that we've been able to talk freely with each other. We just come from a family where it's just, like, Mediterranean screaming."
There's not much screaming on Last Summer. Like I'm Going Away, it's a basic, modest studio-rock record, the kind common in the '70s, with flavorful detours reminiscent of that era: semi-funk strut on "Roosevelt Island," Latin percussion sway on "Early Earthquake."
"For this album, I had a very long Word document that I just kept adding stories to," she says. "I would be copying and pasting. I would pick lines out of that. In 'My Mistakes,' I'm going back and forth in time. I'm describing something that had happened the previous summer, something 10 years before, and something at that moment. I've done that in all the songs I've written. All the songs I write are not very imaginative. They're 100 percent real." She laughs. "I'd like to stick to that, as boring as that might be."
There were other, personal factors at work in the timing of Last Summer's making. "In my personal life, I was single for the first time in many years," she says. "I don't want to make a big issue of [my ex] on this record. It's not a breakup album at all. I covered that ground on I'm Going Away. [That] could almost have been my breakup album if I was going to call something that. That's not what this is."
Instead, Friedberger says, she reset herself in time and place to get motivated. The album, she says, is "me putting myself in the mind-frame of when I first moved to New York. I had to not think about everything in between—with the band, basically. I was trying to go back to that place where I was really excited about music and being totally naïve and coming home from working at a temp job and drinking a bottle of wine and making four-track recordings. I want it to sound very naïve, very girlie."
A way to achieve that effect is to enlist the recorded past. The video for "My Mistakes" contrasts footage of Eleanor at 19, while attending the University of Texas in Austin, with her doing the same things—talking on the phone, putting on a record, doing sit-ups—then and now. Musician and performance artist Sara Magenheimer shot the footage for an art class at UT; she unearthed it around the same time as Eleanor was making the album. "We were just about peeing in our pants laughing," she says of the film, which also features her awkwardly making out with classmate Britt Daniel; it was shot around the time he formed Spoon.
Daniel not only signed off on allowing a new generation of fans to see him sloppily neck in the video, he suggested Friedberger add more contemporary elements to the clip. Which means that, unfortunately for fans of indie-rock romance, the present-day mirror images only go so far. Instead of Eleanor and Britt going at it again, she goes out on a stoop full of the sort of odd neighborhood characters she likes to sing about. "It's such a happy accident," she says of the way she was able to bring together the past and the present. "I had the same dress, which was crazy. I had some of the same posters in both of my kitchens."
Congratulations on fitting into the same dress you wore 15 years ago, I tell her.
"That's from doing all those sit-ups," she says.