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It’s easy to think of The Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger as modern versions of J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey—beautiful, chain-smoking, damnably charming siblings who speak a unique language with acid tongues. Much of their output has been insular and inscrutable, yes, but they’ve mostly overcome it by being intriguing and prolific.
The avant-pop duo’s last album came out in 2009, and in the time since Matthew has released three records as part of an ambitious eight-album project—this in addition to a double album in 2006. So it’s odd that it’s taken Eleanor so long to make her own solo recording.
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Last Summer begins with the line, “I thought I learned from my mistakes,” and those stretching to find a musical explanation might point to The Fiery Furnances’ 2005 release Rehearsing My Choir, a well-intentioned but unfocused, alienating, quasi-unlistenable tribute to their grandmother. Their subsequent releases, especially 2007’s Widow City and 2009’s I’m Going Away, exhibited much improved discretion. Last Summer is an even more significant step, and “My Mistakes,” the sumptuous lead single, is a perfect showcase for Eleanor’s more accessible, more tuneful new sound.
As its nostalgic title suggests, Last Summer is an album about looking in the rear view, especially in how Eleanor and producer Eric Broucek lovingly send up early-’70s AM pop. You can hear Supertramp in the electric-piano throb of “Glitter Gold Year,” Steely Dan in the rubbery bass work of “Roosevelt Island,” and Chicago in the rooftop sax of “Owl’s Head Park.” All 10 songs have a sunlit holiday glaze worthy of Lindsey Buckingham.
And this send-up may not be so loving, after all: It can be hard to tell when Eleanor is kidding in the “diary” entries that accompany the album’s vinyl version. Here she quips about performing at Lilith Fair 2012, which is definitely a joke, but then she worries about one of her songs sounding like “Joanna Newsom sinister crap,” which could go either way.
There is no doubt, however, that Eleanor sounds more confident, sensual, and unburdened on Last Summer than on any record by her band. (That she sounds so great solo should leave her brother at least slightly concerned.) Of course, Last Summer still retains some of the signature quirks of The Fiery Furnaces. Take the out-of-key synth on “Heaven,” or this attention-grabbing line from “Inn of the Seventh Ray”: “Watch Footloose with the biggest bottle of vodka in the world.” Whatever it says about Eleanor’s main band, Last Summer was worth the wait. As a famous Virginia Slims ad from the decade the album inhabits used to say, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”