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In the merch booth hung a white T-shirt adorned with bright letters spelling out a collection of cryptic two-word phrases: REAL ONE, LONE EAR, LEAN ROE, descending to a singular name, Eleanor. For fans of the former Fiery Furnaces singer, there could be only one, and these humble graphics seemed to easily summarize a performer whose verbosity and enigmatic persona have marked a career spanning fifteen years.
Eleanor Friedberger’s first solo record, 2011’s Last Summer, effectively marked the beginning of a hiatus for the sibling duo in which she had first risen to prominence. Gone were the indecisive art-pop epics that typified the music she’d created with her brother Matthew, and in came vibrant, Seventies-inspired, bluesy garage jams buoyed by her clever, distinctive vocal performance. Lyrically, she drew ever more from her personal life, a trend that continued in 2013 with the aptly titled and widely praised Personal Record.
While Friedberger isn’t quite ready to release a new LP, there’s a sense that her devotees will not have to wait too much longer. On stage at Rough Trade Sunday night for a one-off performance, she noted that it was a bit strange to play outside of a tour, and with no album to promote, before launching into a handful of playful new tracks mixed with selections from her solo records: “She’s a Mirror,” “My Mistakes,” “Other Boys.” With blink-and-you’ll-miss-it signature changes, the newer songs especially recalled Blueberry Boat–era Furnaces performances, which typically collaged snippets of on-album arrangements into quirky, rapid-fire sets. Though not quite so daring, it was enough to keep the somewhat sparse crowd on its toes.
Friedberger’s near-monotone can read as slightly detached, but as a performer she’s always captivating, exuding a Patti Smith–esque air of calm that threatens but never quite breaks into total calamity, even as her tightly constructed, syncopated phrasing tumbles over itself. Though Friedberger wielded a guitar on a few numbers, her primary instrument is ultimately her voice, not only because of its sonic idiosyncrasies but because it becomes the measure of the pace by which the songs move. Whether it’s breaking up a roaming, spacey synth patch or skipping over jovial basslines, Friedberger’s affected vocals give each song subtle but separate personalities. This is the single factor that makes her one of the most vital and enduring artists of the last ten years.
That being said, Friedberger’s backing band cannot be underestimated, shifting tempos lithely and seamlessly, providing the flexible backbone from which Friedberger’s acrobatics spring. Any hint of sluggishness on their part could have derailed the whole thing, but in a collection of songs that finds inspiration in everything from Beat poetry to Motown to shuffling, finger-snapping indie pop, their versatility kept the whole thing from unraveling.
In one of her few bits of stage banter, Friedberger reminisced about her early days as a New Yorker, living on Java Street in Greenpoint over a decade ago. Upon moving to Brooklyn, Friedberger had met Cassandra Jenkins — who’d opened for her earlier in the evening here — and Jenkins had in turn introduced Friedberger to an array of influential musicians in the local scene, including Midnight Magic’s Andrew Raposo and, as it would turn out, most of the members of her current backing band. Even with the passage of time, Friedberger’s songs are still very much “of New York,” making references to obscure corners of it, the tunes as frenetic and changeable as the city itself. This sense of place was such a given that Friedberger took extra care in noting that the one song inspired by her current West Coast digs, marked by washes of surfy guitar delay, was “about California,” written when the band was escaping the brutal NYC winter. It’s fitting, then, that even when not touring behind a proper studio release, Friedberger would return to vet new songs before a relatable audience keen to absorb them. We should count ourselves lucky to be part of that history.