(le) poisson rouge
Saturday, November 20
Better than: Any wedding you’ll ever go to.
There’s something very romantic about the casual messes that Eleanor Friedberger’s protagonists get themselves into, and that romanticism is particularly evident on “My Mistakes,” the first song during both her set on Saturday night and her debut solo album, Last Summer (Merge). A remorseful tune at heart, the track manages to avoid defeatism by pairing it with the strongest tool in the singer’s arsenal: her talk-sing vocal style. By removing the long, drawn-out, “woe is me” vocals so prevalent in regretful tunes, she sidesteps sad-sack emotion and moves straight into insightful observation. Detachment works quite well when you’re selling optimism.
There are few singers working today with as much raw cool as Friedberger: bopping back and forth throughout the 50-ish minute set, the Fiery Furnaces member resembled Michael J. Fox’s proto-Chuck Berry from Back To The Future. But she possesses a modern type of cool, as well, as she bantered with the crowd, even asking them if she should change anything sound-wise, despite it being “unprofessional to even ask that.” During the instrumental break in “Roosevelt Island,” one of the stronger parts of the set, she jammed out back by the drummer; as she shimmied her way back up to the mic, a smile cracked on her almost-always neutral face. It was brief but noticeable, especially since she was back to straight-faced cool by the time the last chorus kicked in.
It’s important to note how wonderful Friedberger’s backing band is. The rhythm section blasts through its lines, providing a powerful backbone for the more melodic guitar lines brought by the singer and her impressively talented lead guitarist. In fact, it was this very lead guitarist that rose up to almost (almost) steal the show, with some finely tuned solo improvisations not found on the record. Special props must go out to the bassist as well, for this dude did not seemed fazed by anything thrown at him, trudging along without many cracks in his visage.
However, Saturday’s true star was Eleanor’s voice, which rose to a new level live by doing something rather unexpected—becoming more vicious. On “Inn of the Seventh Ray,,” a lot of the instrumentation was dialed back, allowing the audience to really focus in on the singer. She did not take this opportunity for granted, using it to show off some angry stylings; given the song’s combination of disappointment and anger, the flashes of fury were particularly fitting.
After playing most of the songs from her solo release (and a few new songs as well), Friedberger was gone. She shortly led her band back out for a two-song finale that she kicked off with one of the better Bob Dylan songs, “True Love Tends To Forget.” In the hands of Eleanor, the song became both wilder and somehow more heartbreaking, segueing in well to a slowed-down, fuller version of “One-Month Marathon,” complete with an exquisitely pained read of the line “and for my last ensemble, I will be wearing nothing at all.” Friedberger had informed the audience earlier that she was on the way to a wedding after the show; for someone who was on her way to celebrating true love, it seems that she has a bone to pick with that particular four-letter word. But her strong performance made it easy to forget how much of a downer Last Summer is at times—instead, her immense talent made it easy to remember how great it can be to be young, dumb, and in love.
Critical bias: “Roosevelt Island” might just be my favorite song of the year.
Overheard: “If Matthew comes out right now, I may spontaneously burst into flames.” – a very excited 40something dude sporting a ponytail and a fedora.
Random notebook dump: I wish I could rock a white suit as well as Eleanor.
I’ll Never Be Happy Again
Glitter Gold Year
Scenes from Bensonhurst
When I Knew
Inn of the Seventh Ray
I Won’t Fall Apart On You Tonight
True Love Tends To Forget (Bob Dylan cover)