Release date: 2013-06-10
For a band who often specialised in producing the sort of creative curveballs which would see their grandmother reading love-letters over a queasy collage of squelching synths, The Fiery Furnaces always had an unerring knack for a classic melody, something singer Eleanor Friedberger has carried over into her solo work. Like her first effort, 2011's Last Summer, Personal Record is full of 70s singer-songwriter, MOR pop sounds and coming-of-age, lost innocence vibes.
Also like its predecessor, this record is just a lovely listen. The production sound on the drums and keyboard is fat and satisfying; Friedberger's voice always comes swaddled in that slap-back echo effect immediately redolent of solo Lennon. The subtly kooky 'Tomorrow Tomorrow', for example, with its declamatory chorus which puts one in mind of mid-70s Sparks, feels friendly, cosy and enveloping like a summer's early evening.
That's not to say this album is too nice or safe. For one thing, Friedberger has retained her stylistic tick of cramming more words than should be possible into a single line of verse, Patti Smith-style, forcing the listener to concentrate to pick out what she's saying. Where Friedberger differs from Smith is that she never lets this sing-talk compromise the melody.
It's continually impressive the way she manages to snap back into the flow on tracks such as the quietly heartbreaking 'You'll Never Know Me', on which she quivers: "If you try to hold me again/ I'll break into bits in the palm of your hand". What has happened to make the subject of the song so hesitant is never clearly stated, and the music has a placid, Fleetwood Mac sheen to it, but the way she sings, "Why did you let this happen to me?" is enough to chill the summery feel of the music.
For the most part, though, Personal Record is an easy listen without being easy-listening. Opening track 'I Don't Want to Bother You' and the excellent 'She's a Mirror' wear their 70s Elton John influence on their sleeves, synthesising his piano-led glitter-rock far more subtly than the likes of Mika or Scissor Sisters have ever managed. 'When I Knew', meanwhile, boogie-woogies unashamedly in way not heard since the heyday of Status Quo and Dire Straights, Friedberger remembering a girl with whom she shared a love of "weird music" like Soft Machine and Dexys Midnight Runners, ruefully concluding, "I couldn't get her out of my head/ so I got her out of hers instead/ and then we ended up in..." It's a definite standout.
Like Last Summer, Personal Record is based around a cryptic jumble of 'dear diary' entries. It's impossible to tell how many of these songs are really based on personal experiences, but the soundworld Friedberger creates by combining nostalgia-inducing 70s/80s sounds with her semi-spoken-word, cool cat delivery is utterly convincing. The feeling that you're getting snapshots of a life that's travelled from suburban adolescence (the gorgeous closer 'Singing Time' mentions "coming first in a spelling bee") to hot, exotic city streets populated by eccentrics and artists is seductive and a lot of fun. It makes Friedberger's music an addictive listen.
A couple of tracks break with the overall MOR feel: 'Echo or Encore' has a lovely, dusky, Latin guitar sound, while 'I Am the Past' is early 70s Joni Mitchell folk, with finger-picking, sax, flute, hippyish tinkling, and some great lyrics: "I'm your first time/ I'm your worst/ I'm the best time you ever rehearsed/ I'm the ghost of ex-girlfriends/ but mostly I'm me". Like most of Friedberger's work in The Fiery Furnaces and solo, it expertly walks a fine line between wise and sophisticated, and a bit pretentious and silly.
Really, there are no bad tracks here. You can happily listen to this album from beginning to end and you'll probably pick out something new each time. Eleanor Friedberger has quietly become one of the best singer-songwriters of our time and she's done it with music which sounds simultaneously timeless and rooted in specific times, places and experiences. That's no mean feat.