Over their first five albums, the Fiery Furnaces gained a steadily swelling reputation for distended maximalism, quickly unloading reams of songs sagging with prog effects and impenetrable lyricism. This technique reached a terminus on 2006’s Bitter Tea; since then, the band has pursued a kind of musical perestroika, simplifying their delivery, dividing the remaining traits between the group’s two Friedberger siblings, who were increasingly presented as independent figures working in collaboration. This continues on Last Summer, sister Eleanor’s debut, a loose concept album that’s dense but never overtly rigorous.
Compared to most of the band’s oeuvre, Last Summer is slim and focused, and surprisingly short on frenetic loopiness. It still retains many of the Fiery Furnaces’ signature affectations, cataloguing a summer’s worth of weird sights, offhand asides, and subway trips to Coney Island, but feels about three tons lighter than brother Matthew’s 2006 double album, Holy Ghost Language School/Winter Women.
In some ways, Last Summer is a continuation of the scaled-back approach of the Fiery Furnaces’ I’m Going Away, furthering the backroom show-tunes feel, prizing repetitive motifs and warm ‘70s-style keys and horns in lieu of diffuse electronics. It’s also a logical step away from their latest release, the weird remix project Take Me Round Again, which seemed to prime them for a total split, giving each sibling the chance to record their own covers of songs from the previous album. The result here partially identifies Eleanor as an individual songwriter, though it still retains many of the nagging qualities that have made the band so frustrating.
A travelogue lyrical format is still favored, with rambling story songs that are always roaming somewhere, singularly fixated on location and movement. At times, all this hurrying around becomes exhausting. The minutiae detailed on “Owl Head Park,” which finds Eleanor’s narrator buying a bike, then having to resort to the subway to find her way home, grows excessive, making its four-and-a-half-minute length feel much longer. “Inn of the Seventh Ray,” with its endless pleading chorus (“You promised to take me to the inn of the seventh ray”) strikes just the right mix of whininess and pretension to qualify as one of the most annoying tracks this year.
On the other hand, material like opener “My Mistakes” harnesses the strong combination of melody and melancholy that made for the best Fiery Furnaces songs. Studded with these kind of moments, Last Summer eventually develops into the kind of quiet concept album the band always struggled to make, firmly rooted in season and place, without drawing too much attention to its themes. It works as a musical cousin to Andre Breton’s surrealist novel Nadja, which defined Paris via a succession of small, absurd events, creating a patchwork portrayal through minute snapshots. Friedberger’s debut may not be as brilliant, but it goes about depicting summer in New York in a similarly organic fashion, casting a city full of mysterious old men and rambunctious kids on the F train.