Like Matt & Kim, much of the appeal of Eleanor Friedberger is that she treats her origins like a calling card. Her solo debut from her usual mainstay, The Friendly Fires, is peppered with specific references to New York City, and Friedberger flavors them with personal stories she tells in rambling, conversational candor. In fact, you could argue that that main draw of Last Summer is Friedberger as a personality, as the actual music that accompanies her is harmless soft rock, something that would not sound out of place on Marissa Nadler’s newest album. Where Matt & Kim, to continue this comparison, may keep their NYC inhabitance as a reference for their infectiously catchy tunes, Friedberger makes that inhabitance the main attraction. Luckily, this works in her favor.
The instrumentation of Last Summer is not at all revelatory. There are slight dabbles in funk (“Roosevelt Island”) and tropical rhythms (“Early Earthquake”), but the album mostly finds itself catering to the Brooklyn bohemian stereotype. Even if this was not intended (after all, who intends for the music on their album to be bland?), it ultimately helps Friedberger’s cause, because the rare variances in the music serve as foils for her forceful personality. Every time Friedberger says “ray” in “Inn of the Seventh Ray”, a rupture of echoes occurs, making her story all the more impressionable. While Last Summer will certainly not be remembered for any performance other than Friedberger’s, the music serves a clever purpose that helps to embolden the main attraction.
And the main attraction doesn’t disappoint. From what I have described, you’d think Last Summer was a musical travelogue… and it is, but it’s an excellent one at that. Friedberger speaks in a way that always makes her sound affable, so little throwaway phrases often become epic story-enders. “You got sick on the Cyclone,” she murmurs in “Roosevelt Island” as if keeling over from her own lovesickness. On “Scenes from Bensonherst", she bundles up her memories and moves on with the casual line, “Now it’s all of them in my inbox.” Friedberger may be intimidated by the passing days (“I said it wouldn’t come so close but it did,” goes one line), but she still sees 2010 as a glitter gold year. Last Summer gives a genuine impression of a girl in awe of the things around her, and Friedberger never ceases to describe scenes with brilliant simplicity.
This is best exemplified on “Inn of the Seventh Ray”, ironically the only song on Last Summer that doesn’t deal with a New York locale. Instead, Friedberger’s tale unfolds in California as she insists to go to the restaurant during trips. “If Highland Park isn’t close enough / There’s that place on the way / And into the Seventh Ray.” The words tumble out of her like someone that would be indicating they want to go somewhere without explicitly saying so. Her personality is well established, so it’s campy as opposed to grating when she follows up with this non sequitur: “Take a lecture in stereoscopics to show us the way / To see with one eye open and one eye closed.” At that point, you see it as business as usual.
In fact, I believe the biggest reason Last Summer is a very good as opposed to excellent album is that there aren’t more non sequiturs like that line. Friedberger has great poise that I would love to hear say more ridiculous things; perhaps cede more realism to fancy. Despite Last Summer being essentially held up by one vice, I crave more Friedberger. Perhaps a trip to a more exotic locale is in order, like Tatooine or Castle Greyskull.