Eleanor Friedberger is an underrated genius. [You will be reading that word a lot in this review; “genius.”] Most people know Eleanor as one-part of the genius team of the Fiery Furnaces, but she also has her own hermetic freakishly gifted brand of brilliance that is worth casting an admiring eye upon. The evidence is fully served up in her debut solo album, Last Summer that plays as a 10-song diaristic overview of her life at the time that she wrote it. Unlike much of the Fiery Furnaces‘ quasi-experimental work, Eleanor’s solo release is super listenable. It’s full of rock and funk hooks (the “funkiest” example of which carries an upbeat song tailing a meandering trip to get drugs, take drugs, and the thoughts one thinks when on drugs) that sound fresh and new, even though they are working in classic pop territory.
Last Summer came out in July and Friedberger is currently in the middle of a big-ass US tour to promote it. When a group of friends and I left the Crocodile after seeing her show there on Feb 9th, the conversation immediately turned towards discussing her as some sort of wunderkind. We all felt like we had just experienced something sneakily special—there was no bravado, glitz or spectacle surrounding the show (it largely lacked pretense of any kind)—but we were kind of blown away, nevertheless. Our friend Scotty summed it up perfectly by saying that she has a “shine.” Here’s the full run down of the shiny-ass night that we had:
The mood of the show was constrained excitement. That is, except for me and my husband, who danced to Eleanor‘s mildly upbeat music like it was a fucking rave, because we were so stoked. For the first row or two behind us, other folks danced with grins and convulsed fists in the air which they didn’t want to move, but had no choice. Those were “fuck-yeah” fists. Filling the rest of the space was mild swaying by soft-smiling fans. I missed the opening band because I was eating dank pizza in the back of the venue and the tall booths were, more or less, sound proof. When Eleanor and her crew came out, they looked real cool, but not like they were trying to with any concerted effort. Her backing band consisted of three dudes who were probably all from New York. Everyone of them had their collars turned lazily halfway up. The drummer was a living drum machine, very much in the pocket and seemingly shy. The bassist was either super crazy wasted, to the point that he was at the brink of falling over at any moment, or he was just a really laid back dude. It was hard to tell. Still, when he was tasked with telling the audience a joke to buy time for some gear rearrangement, he totally nailed it. (It was about a lobster walking into a bar.) He seemed to be about 7 feet tall and he played a 7/8 size bass. The lead guitarist looked to be about 20 years old and lifted off some heavy Tom Petty-inspired half-solo rippers pretty frequently throughout the night. He wore a bright white shirt, played a bright red guitar, and alternated between laughing at/with the bassist and making vague sneers/sex-stares at the audience. He was fun to watch. Eleanor strummed her guitar like it was a super-fluffy puppy floating in front of her. It could have even been a weird appendage that she was born with and was always meant to play. Basically, she made it look incredibly easy.
Friedberger’s onstage presence was very easy, too; totally commanding the room without even trying. She carried herself as if there was absolutely nothing special about being able to perfectly play 2 or 3 brand new songs -possibly just written while still on tour (with lyrics like a dense short-story)- and that it was something that should be expected. As if ripping sweet guitar solos on the most beautiful mint green fender you’ve ever seen is chump stuff. As if wearing striped bell bottoms and a fitted dashiki with the collar flipped fully up doesn’t make her look like a charismatic cult leader for the 21st century who could get half of the hipsters of the country to self-immolate within 30 seconds. She is a rock genius; surely a legend in the making (and partly already made). Yet, the way that she moves, walks, and talks lacks any affectation that she possesses any awareness of such. Her genius is completely natural and she is at home in this skin. I remember listening to Last Summer when I first got it about a month ago, and having a passionate argument with myself about why the funding of art is so important—so that people like her can dedicate their lives to their gifts. Am I getting the point across? How may more times do I have to say “rock genius”??!!
Last Summer is an intricately orchestrated album. There are lots of extra things going on within it to make it extra amazing: weird, farty Rhodes-sounding organs, creepy reverby background “ahs“, wilty strings and Roxy Music-style sex-sax. The sound of the live set was scaled back for a touring band–no keys, no extra vocals, no auxiliary percussion. And it worked, although some songs had a vague karaoke-version tinge (I think that it was all of the chorus effect), the stripped-down 70s rock vibe balanced it out. It was surprising to hear such a lush recording being pulled off in a bare bones rock-is-all-we-need-to-rock arrangement, but it felt intentional. It just seemed to further illustrate how natural and pro at this Eleanor is. The shit bleeds from her fingers. Although I never saw Fiery Furnaces, I imagine that they may have pulled off something similar when they would tour scaled-down versions of so many crazy super-layered schizo orchestra-albums.
After the last song, the crowd cheered the band on for an encore and Eleanor came out by herself. She told us about when they had played with a band that she described as having “all these computers” and how someone compared her and her band to Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Fittingly, she immediately broke into a Holly song. The band came out for what I assume was an obscure funk gem and that was the end of the encore. Maybe the best part of the evening came right after that when Eleanor hurriedly put her guitar down and jumped off the stage to run over and man her own merch booth. I didn’t want to buy anything and was too scared to go over there, but my already high-opinion of her was elevated to WTF levels. Eleanor Friedberger keeps it real.