Eleanor Friedberger keeps it nice and breezy on her first solo album, Last Summer. Taking a step away from the top-heavy production style and high-concept drama of the Fiery Furnaces sound, she’s crafted a pretty neat and mostly gratifying summer album — a summer stoop album, to be exact. A love letter to her adopted home of Brooklyn, New York, Last Summer is full of easy guitar riffs and smooth sax solos, all “ooh”s and “aah”s and “ba-pa-pa”s: just the kind of stuff to take the heat off the pavement. Forget Best Coast, forget Wavves, forget the west coast indie heat and its heavy reverb; Friedberger’s sound is lithe and sinewy and full of beats, just the way we like it here in the east. Think Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” or The Stones’ “Waitin’ on a Friend”: a summer jive for sexy urban hipsters. Think tube tops and roller skates, stoop ball and watermelon, an open fire hydrant; think of the music coming over from a block party down the block that you’re too comfortable to join.
In recent interviews, Friedberger has stressed the simplicity of her new effort: its emotional directness and sonic immediacy. No knotty guitar solos or intricate wordplay here; most songs consist of just a couple of chords, and some of the lyrics seem improvised on the spot. The album carries over many of the themes and preoccupations of her work with brother Matt, but it severely restricts its scope and vision in order to give them a new personal poignancy. No doubt, Last Summer is a sonic travelogue of the kind we’ve come to expect from the Friedbergers, a rambling record of some surreal and slightly dubious journey in time and space. Here, though, the trek occurs mostly by bike and extends not much further than Coney Island, Bensonhurst, and Roosevelt Island. The songs explode geography and history from within, using sound in order to bend and stretch the possibilities of time and motion, but they move with quirky ease, a graceful bop from one everyday scene to another. Friedberger drifts causally across this semi-urban hipster-scape, just as her songs drift from one style to another — synthpop, disco, rock, a little bit of dub and reggae — catching both the openness of the district and its musical traditions. If this summer trek is full of accidents and improvisations, chancy meet-ups and ominous hook-ups, they all seem utterly harmless and truly human in the end.
In this regard, the two stand-outs are “My Mistakes” and “Roosevelt Island.” The first number is a perfect little pop gem, a two-chord wonder about coasting too fast through life. It begins with the singer flying along a bridge on a bike, a great metaphor for all the careless relations that follow. Sure, small crashes and scrape-ups happen along the way, but nothing too serious. “I thought I’d live for my mistakes,” Friedberger sings, backed by a happy little synth line, but her mistakes are small and the consequences simple. The song concludes with a deft little sax solo that brilliantly summarizes the borough at its most innocent, the kind of sax solo that conjures up all the nostalgia of New York in the 1970s, if not the ease of Sesame Street itself. “Roosevelt Island,” on the other hand, swaggers to a Motown beat and a disco bassline. Here, Friedberger uses her best hot-shit tough-girl voice — a kind of Brooklyn talking blues — to track a lazy mid-summer journey via public transportation. Here, too, though, little happens; Friedberger’s Brooklyn Odyssey consists of nothing more than a few sleepy subway rides and a couple of unexpected encounters, maybe an easy drug deal at the disco. “And so it goes and it goes,” she sings, without a care, and, once that funk gets hold of you, you don’t want to be anywhere else than on this meaningless trek with her.
Similarly, Friedberger personalizes The Fiery Furnaces’ take on the slippery relation of song and memory. While the songs on Last Summer were originally composed last summer, most of them refer back to Friedberger’s Brooklyn arrival 10 years earlier, recalling a pre-9/11 landscape of borough-bound optimism. But, really, they reach back even further, to the sounds and scenes of the late 70s and, further still, to the doo-wop stoop culture of the 50s. But each stratum of time seems more fragile than the last, an illusory recreation rather than a reference point. On “Scenes from Bensonhurst,” for example, Friedberger flips through a series of memories, tracking, in near-cinematic form, the arc of a relationship that ultimately went nowhere. Her musings are set to an easy shuffle beat and a calypso rhythm (the melody is all ABBA). The dreamy style works well, as most of her memories show her alone, in bed, musing listlessly on an even earlier past. Time slips too easily here, but, again, there’s no urgency; the song is breezy and inconsequential, as if the past, as past, safely contained in song, makes no demands on us anymore. “I lay in bed and dreamt I never said that,” Friedberger sings in a beautiful soprano before dropping to her trademark alto and quickly filing these visions in her personal “in box.” Such songs prove remarkably evocative of earlier times, but also, as songs, as overlapping sounds and styles, tend to confuse and collapse otherwise distinct memories, turning history — both private and personal — into a surreal mix of dubious value.
But, at worse, such drifting leads nowhere at all. There’s a cool grace to this album, a refreshing easiness with one’s life and experiences that gives it a genuine charm. But Friedberger’s hipster swagger often comes across — in both her lazy-day lyrics and sing-speak-y delivery — as a bit passive, as a kind of personal blankness or listlessness. At best, these songs are open to all sorts of new sounds and sights; they’re apt to lead to Bensonhurst or the Inn of the Seven Rays, to 1998 or 1978 or 1956. At worse, though, they seem overly simple or commonplace and tend to drift toward nowhere special, as if Friedberger the artist has lost the thread and doesn’t know when she’s boring her audience. Musically, there’s really nothing groundbreaking here, and you might not be able to get over the fact that you’re essentially listening to someone else ramble on about their slightest memories. In fact, the first half of the album is excellently sequenced, full of unexpected twists and turns, but the second half is a bit of a drag. “Glitter Gold Year,” for example, with its repetitive guitar vamp and stuttering vocals, sounds more like a home studio experiment than a genuine song. “Owl’s Head Park,” with its plodding beat and howling saxes, is even more indulgent; Friedberger details her trip to a Coney Island bike shop and back, but it’s a story that doesn’t get any better in its retelling.
And yet this passivity is clearly the flipside, or extreme end, of Friedberger’s easy cool, and I’ll gladly take the bad with the good. There’s tons of personality on display here, a toughness of character, a sense of style, a truly personal vision of musical release. In general, with Last Summer, Friedberger proves that she can swagger with the best of New York’s summer cats — Reed, Jagger, Verlaine, Smith, Dylan — but in a way that seems unique to her own time and generation. Perhaps the kind of cool I have in mind is best represented on a track titled “I Won’t Fall Apart on You Tonight,” a surprise rock number with a knock-down doo-wop chorus. Here, Friedberger sings with rising intensity, “‘Could-have-been’ is a sad old song, one I won’t sing and won’t hum along/ There’s nothin’ new, and that’s nothin’ bad/ It’s just the same, but that’s not what we came to say here or to do.” And, with her cool intact, Freidberger doesn’t fall apart, even as the song (and this relationship) falls apart around her. Here, she hints at something deeper, something painful, and blows it away with her own detached song. It’s a cool stance and a fitting summary for this summer effort as a whole, a breezy album that, in its sound alone, can both get you moving and cool you down. It also suggests that, even by looking back, Friedberger’s looking forward. Last Summer sounds good; next summer could be even better.