Eleanor Friedberger – Personal Record

For a magical moment in the mid-aughts, the Fiery Furnaces were the greatest band in the world. Circa Blueberry Boat and the singles/EPs that straddled it, the Friedberger siblings were on a creative bender – churning out genre-defying guitar and piano-driven epics, then spinning them into “James Brown Revue” non-stop live sets paying virtually no heed to their recorded versions. This supernova was bound to flame out – and sure enough, it did (heck, I’d last in a band with my sister for about 45 minutes). While brother Matthew tests the boundaries of audience antagonism with a flood of obtuse releases, Eleanor re-emerged in 2011 with the genteel, mostly home recorded Last Summer.

Contrary to its title, Personal Record demonstrates the benefits of collaboration. As on her debut, Eleanor Friedberger places her own spin on sixties girl group motifs. Yet its two most immediately arresting tracks are road tested guitar rave-ups sharpened by her quartet during the Last Summer tour, where they already served as highlights. It’s easy to imagine the band hashing out the girl-crush tale “I Was Wrong” by shouting out, “OK, let’s try Loaded-era Velvets!”

The balance of Personal Record is more subdued and singer-songwriterly, and also more appealing than the rear guard of its predecessor. Her bossa nova turn on “Echo or Encore” is no more than an intermezzo, but the breezy “My Own World” would fit snugly between Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan on a ’70s summer radio, particularly for those who fail to note charmingly idiosyncratic lyrics rhyming “diary” with “dates of expiry.”

Buried in the liner notes is the unexpected fact that Friedberger co-wrote her personal album with Wesley Stace, who’s still better known to most as John Wesley Harding. It’s an odd pairing – the Cambridge-educated Stace excels at witty wordplay, which has long been Friedberger’s strength as well. There’s no indication of relative contributions – and Wes doesn’t play on the record itself – but given his recent work Stace may be the source of baroque touches on “I Am the Past” and “Singing Time.” And why over-analyze a good thing, anyway?

Personal Record is more approachable than virtually anything in the Furnaces’ catalog, without sacrificing the quirkiness that sets Eleanor apart. It’s the best Friedberger record in nearly a decade.

Eleanor Friedberger
Personal Record