A few weeks ago Eleanor Friedberger released her solo debut, Last Summer and as a die hard Fiery Furnaces fan I read every review of the album that I could find. While almost every review was extremely positive, (spoiler: I really like Last Summer) I was fascinated, disgusted, and put off by a lot of the writing. The cornerstones of current music journalism are context and comparison. For some reason the majority of reviewers saw Eleanor’s solo debut as an open opportunity to take stabs at the Furnaces’ boldest album, Rehearsing My Choir, Matt for writing brainy “inaccessible” music, and an egregious amount of false or lazy comparisons.
Let’s start with the actual links between Last Summer and The Fiery Furnaces. Simply put, Last Summer doesn’t sound like any Furnaces album. The only link in sound is Eleanor’s voice and that alone. Yet, comparisons were often made to the Furnaces’ debut Gallowsbird's Bark and their latest LP I’m Going Away. Gallowsbird's Bark is southern rock album with hints of blues influences and I’m Going Away was the Furnaces' tinkering with a garage band rock album sound. Last Summer is all over the place stylistically; from the funky “Roosevelt Island” to the swinging hips pop rock of “I Won’t Fall Apart On You Tonight”, all the while rooted in Eleanor’s self proclaimed love for 70’s rock. None of the Furnaces' records play off the same influences/sounds on Last Summer, yet the Gallowsbird's Bark and I’m Going Away are drawn upon because of that dirty word: accessibility. I call it dirty because accessibility is on a listener-to-listener basis, yet reviewers use it as a factual marker to define an album to their readers. One of the reasons the Furnaces’ are one of my favorite bands is that they adopted the credo from the beginning that they would never make an album just because it’s time to do so. Matt and Eleanor always approach each record with a concept (not always a concept album) which acts as the basis for why and how the music is being made. Last Summer is no different, it’s a well thought-out piece that exists, not because Eleanor wanted to break away and make something accessible, rather she had something to say, music to make, and executed the album based off how she thought that concept best needed to be communicated through sound.
I think the most amusing part about the reviews that singled out the Furnaces’ most controversial album Rehearsing My Choir to point out the band at their presumed worst, is that Rehearsing My Choir is basically the only Furnaces connection I can make to Last Summer. I’ll elaborate on this more in my actual review, but Rehersing My Choir is a concept album that explores the memories/stories of a narrator, each of these stories centrally taking place in Chicago. Last Summer, hold the “Inn Of The Seventh Ray”, takes place in New York City. The shared thread between the Furnaces and Eleanor’s solo album is how both albums take the listener to these locations and examine the details only known to songwriter(s), but craft their songs in such a way that the listener leaves the record feeling like they have been transported to those spots. As a music listener who visualizes the narrative and makes images in my head out of the presented melodies, this technique is what attracts me to both Rehearsing My Choir and Last Summer. The examination of place and focus on personal details to make the unfamiliar familiar is the only viable thread between the Furnaces and Last Summer outside Eleanor's voice.
I’m not sure why, but two of my favorite bands, The Fiery Furnaces and Deerhoof, are magnets for misguided context and comparisons. I think the amount of uninformed text dedicated to these two bands is due to everyone (on the indie fan level) knowing their names regardless of time actually spent with the music. This is a dangerous mix because it allows casual fans to have opinions before they ever listen to a single track. The signifiers can be as simple as the Fiery Furnaces/Deerhoof, that weird band, with the weird lead vocals, backwards vocals band, etc. These of course are wrong in the context of their full discographies, yet if enough people communicate these false identifiers they strangely become attached to the band. One of my favorites concerning Eleanor is the comparison to Patti Smith. Eleanor and Smith have the following in common: they are both women, play music, and have shaggy hair with bangs. Basically, they look alike. Yet, Eleanor is constantly compared to Smith regardless of their music sounding nothing alike. Eleanor herself has addressed this trend admitting that she never looked to Smith as an influence rather molded herself from male singer/songwriters. Why then, is this comparison peppered in reviews concerning the Furnaces or her solo record? It’s easy, lazy writing.