all words: Phil Runco
all photos: Blink OfAnEye
“This is our second show,” Eleanor Friedberger informed the Black Cat Backstage audience early on Tuesday night. “We’re so happy to celebrate here,” she continued, her voice trailing off, “um, whatever we’re celebrating.
That Friedberger’s solo debut, the delightful Last Summer, had been released that day – providing, one would think, a fairly legitimate reason to celebrate – seemed to hardly register; eight years after Gallowsbird’s Bark introduced the Fiery Furnaces, Friedberger remains as “unassailably cool” as they come.
Of course, there’s a fine line between “cool” and “aloof,” and it’s a line that Eleanor and her brother Matthew have found themselves on both sides of during the Fiery Furnaces tenure. The band has long prided itself on convoluted arrangements and flouting audience expectations by refusing to recreate songs as they exist on record, or even as they did on previous tours. It’s all something which in principle I would certainly file under “cool,” but in practice, a Fiery Furnaces live show can be an impenetrable affair: for each time I’ve them run their catalogue through a refreshingly unexpected filter, I’ve also seen them bulldoze an audience with relentlessly sped-up and bled-together takes on old favorites.
Eleanor Friedberger made clear before she played a note Tuesday that despite staking things out on her own, she would not be discarding the Fiery Furnaces’ ethos, at least entirely. The piano that anchors much of Last Summer was nowhere to be seen, and along with it – less surprisingly –the instruments that color the record with whimsical flourishes: saxophone, clavinet, horns, and sampled strings.. Instead, Friedberger and her backing three-piece used a conventional set-up (dual electric guitars, drums, bass) to reimagine Last Summer as more straightforward rock.
But despite limited ingredients, the rock produced by Friedberger and her band was unexpectedly rich and varied. There was a pleasantly spacey tone to the guitars that cribbed from glam rock atmospherics, and Last Summer’s leisurely melodies benefitted from the extra oomph in the rhythm section. The band zipped through single “My Mistakes” and should-be-single “I Won’t Fall Apart on You Tonight”, and proved just as capable of transitioning to the mellower, strummy territory of the easygoing “Scenes from Bensonhurst” and “Early Earthquake”.
I imagine some might have been bummed to hear the idiosyncrasies of Last Summer (and particularly its standout, “Heaven”) lost in the shuffle, but to my ears, it was a relatively fair trade off; most of these songs slipped comfortably into more muscular arrangements. Plus, it’s not like Last Summer is flawless. In its best moments, the record recalls the streamlined – but still quirky – pop of AC Newman’s The Slow Wonder, and at it’s least impressive, it recalls AC Newman’s second full-length. (Remember Get Guilty? Exactly.) In other words, there was room for improvement, particularly in its sagging midsection.
So Last Summer got an amped up, slightly spaced out, and occasionally funkier makeover, and on the whole, it was a good look for Friedberger. It helped that the band had such strong hooks to build on. (Appropriately, the two Fiery Furnaces songs Friedberger revisited – “Tropical-Iceland” and “Police Sweater Blood Vow” – were drawn from the group’s poppiest efforts, EP and Bitter Tea, respectively.) But, more importantly, the band didn’t beef things up so far as to smother Friedberger.
Granted, Friedberger’s never exactly been a wallflower, but in the Fiery Furnaces she’s often at odds with – or least swimming upstream against – the strength of her brother’s melodies and serpentine arrangements. She shoehorns herself in. Here though, she’s given some room to breathe. In this outfit, songs conform to her turns of phrase, and not the other way around. (Speaking of outfits, with an old Robert Pollard tour t-shirt tucked into some high-riding jeans, Friedberger has perfected her “homeschooled chic” look.)
Friedberger closed the night with something she had written last week. It was the third song on the night to postdate the recording of Last Summer. The first two “When I Know” (“a song about a lot of chicks”) and “I’ll Never Be Happy Again” didn’t deviate much from the night’s overall aesthetic, though the latter built a surf guitar lick and maraca shakes into something approaching romantic.
The third, a one-song encore, featured Friedberg alone on guitar, and was in many ways a mess. Friedberger flubbed several lines. She smiled away her mistakes, and in the end just said she hoped no one had recorded it. It was a vulnerable moment, made more so by the content of the song: “Give me your toothpaste / Give me your ointment / Give me your body in bed,” she pleaded.
It was a nice way to end the set, giving the audience a small taste of the Last Summer’s intimacy, and leaving us to wonder what the hell the song will sound like when it does make its way to record.