Eleanor Friedberger’s Wikipedia entry is scant compared to the nine hundred plus words devoted to Fiery Furnaces, the band she led with her brother Matthew. In their nine-year recording career the Furnaces were productive, releasing eight albums and a smattering of eps and singles. Their work was sometimes direct, sometimes obscure, frequently melodic and engaging, occasionally oblique and difficult. As voice of the band Eleanor conveyed a broad thematic and emotional range, mostly communicating brother Matthew’s knotty and diverse ideas.
Now, as a solo artist, Eleanor’s job is easy. She just has to be herself. And after all those years as a “Furnace,” she’s had plenty of time to discover and determine who she is as an artist.
Her summer 2011 release, Last Summer, was a fresh felicity – personal, idiosyncratic, but informed by a directness of intent and openness that was refreshing compared to the archly intellectual qualities of the Furnaces. Her melodies were simple and engaging. Her lyrics were charming, personal narratives and reflections shared with an off hand candor. Good as it was, Last Summer sounds like a rough draft with the release of Personal Record.
Friedberger has an uncanny knack for integrating and recycling classic rock moves while personalizing them and making them sound fresh. Dig the Beatle turnarounds on “I Don’t Want to Bother You” (“Don’t Let Me Down”), and ‘She’s a Mirror” (“Something”), the former an ambling, passive-aggressive burner, the latter full of Motown bounce.
The ubiquitous Velvet Underground influence is present, of course; could a band that sold so few records possibly have influenced more musicians? Personal Record often evokes the brittle-bright quality of Loaded, especially on tracks like “When I Knew,” “Stare at the Sun,” “My Own World,” and “You’ll Never Know Me;” they all feature that patented Buddy Holly with urban aggravation strum that the Velvets patented. Most of Friedberger’s lyrics mull the wonders and sorrows of love. “When I Knew” is a frankly girl on girl tale of infatuation, told with giddy bohemian cheek (“I couldn’t get her out of my head; so I got her out of hers instead”) – catchy, coy and altogether fetching. “Stare at the Sun” is adamant romance, Friedberger singing, “If that was goodbye you must be high.” ‘My Own World” engages that sense of seeing things anew in love (“clichés have taken on shocking new meanings”).
Friedberger tells it like it is (or is it?) on “Tomorrow Tomorrow.” Asserting “you’re never gonna break my heart, as the band opens with a Spector thump and Small Faces (Ian MacLagan) organ swirls surround her voice.
As Personal Record gathers steam, Friedberger enters into deeper waters. “I Am the Past” is a starkly poetic song, evoking Astral Weeks , Donovan and Nick Drake (maybe it’s the breathy flute) more than ‘rock’ influences, packing a purge of intimate reflection into a mere 3:27.
At 6:06, “Other Boys” is Personal Record’s bittersweet peak, an aching look at faithless love, the singer torn between defiance and a sadness she won’t quite cop to. One of the guitarists (Eric Broucek, John Eatherly, and Mass Asti are credited) spins off a twisted, gorgeous solo that reconciles Lou Reed and Eric Clapton. The penultimate number, segues into “Singing Time,” a restless farewell that begins as strummed folk-rock, resolved and elegiac, only to break into a pop valediction that sounds like Eleanor might have owned an Abba record or two growing up. This performance is a fitting cap to an album full of fresh twists and turns, musically and lyrically, and a song cycle full of melody and surprise. Personal Record, ambiguously titled, is indeed a ‘personal record’ in both senses of the term. But it may not be Eleanor’s Friedberger’s ‘personal best.’ That may be yet to come.
DOWNLOAD: “She’s A Mirror,” “When I Knew,” “Other Boys”