It's hard to know what to expect out of the Fiery Furnaces. They've never been an easy band to predict in terms of where they're going to go from album to album. Iconoclasts who make the music they want, when they want, the Furnaces avoid as many career cliches as possible. Well, this was true until their last couple albums, which saw them become more straightforward and accessible. I keep waiting for them to get weird and experimental again, to do something totally unexpected, so it's a little surprising to see them predictably continuing on in the same direction with Last Summer.
But wait, this is a solo album, not the next step for the Furnaces. While Matt Friedberger is spending 2011 releasing a series of limited edition solo albums using one instrument at a time, Eleanor is continuing in the retro rock/pop direction set by I'm Going Away and its digital-only companion Take Me Round Again. Last Summer goes further still and ends up being the most accessible and instantly enjoyable recording associated with the band. Mind you, when Matt released his first solo album a few years back, a double record supposedly divided between more 'out there' and experimental tracks (Holy Ghost Language School) and accessible pop songs (Winter Women), things didn't quite shake out as intended on the latter. It still had far too many of the usual weirdo Furnaces tricks—schizophrenic instrumentation, seemingly arbitrary song structures, keyboard freakouts and guitar skronk—to qualify as the sunny/summery pop album it was intended to be.
Last Summer, though, makes good on that intention, sounding less overtly rock than I'm Going Away and less stripped down than Eleanor's covers of I'm Going Away songs on the Take My Round Again release. This record is a nostalgic look back at all summers past, evoking the 1970s all the while. Hell, the cover even looks 70s vintage, matching the look of the Widow City cover but in classy black and white. This is the sort of album you can leave in your car's CD player for days at a time and never tire of; passengers won't ask you to put something else on though they probably won't ask who it is. You might think this means it is a slight and shallow album, but despite its accessibility, Last Summer packs a lot of detail and novel flourishes into its songs to keep you listening. Particular delights include the surprisingly funky, Steely Dan-esque groove of 'Roosevelt Island' and the shimmering peaks of 'I Won't Fall Apart On You Tonight' (which I've convinced myself is an answer song to Bob Dylan's 'Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight').
For good or ill, you will have to pay attention to pick up on the excellent playing on these songs because there is rarely a stretch of time where Eleanor isn't singing. You expect a solo album to showcase someone's talents, but even for a solo album, Last Summer is all Eleanor, all the time. This works to the album's advantage because she has matured so much as a songwriter and vocalist that those who used to grind their teeth at the Fiery Furnaces could easily love this record, just as Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion appealed to those who never liked that band. The aptly named 'Heaven' is like a cheat sheet to her appeal as a singer, a slow shuffling groove supporting her slightly ethereal voice (kind of like a less chanteuse-y/less smoky version of Victoria Legrand from Beach House). Her performance sells the seemingly inconsequential story of a stolen bike on 'Owl's Head Park', infusing it with an affecting sense of being lost, alone, and just wanting to get home to the security of the one you love.
The way that song bleeds into the album closing 'Early Earthquake' is evidence of the fact that Last Summer is an album which manages the rare accomplishment of getting better as it goes and getting better with each listen. Belonging in the company of retro-mining indie-pop acts with a strong female lead like She & Him and Tennis, this is an easy-going, light-but-not-shallow record and one of the year's best surprises.