As the year comes to a close, Hive asked some of our favorite music writers to talk about excellent 2011 albums that went unrecognized.
A real New York girl is always trying to remember who she was before she got to the City. With those before-and-after selves on display, perhaps she could make an objective call about whether it’s all been worth it: The crumbling apartments, the exorbitant brokers fees, the bad men, the good men, the hangovers, the mean bosses and the strings pulled to get on lists, the ramen noodle dinners and walks home in heels and hours spent crying in bathrooms of sad office buildings that collectively amount to a kind of existential penance paid for a few fleeting but ecstatic moments of glamorous, urban perfection. “I am not sure that it is possible for anyone brought up in the East to appreciate entirely what New York, the idea of New York, means to those of us who came out of the West and the South,” Joan Didion writes in “Goodbye to All That,” her iconic 1967 essay about loving and leaving the City. “To those of us who came from places where Wall Street and Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were not places at all but abstractions … New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.”
“The entire album is peppered with those stand-out lines and phrases that, once you’ve heard them, feel so indelibly a part of your consciousness you wonder if these songs are secretly covers of some phantom musician you’ve been listening to since childhood.”
Eleanor Friedberger is one of Didion’s heirs, a fellow observant outsider who looks to the City to show her who she was and who she will become. A Midwestern girl from the Chicago suburbs, Friedberger moved to Brooklyn about a decade ago and alongside her brother formed the enigmatic indie rock duo Fiery Furnaces. The band is compelling but frustrating. When they’re great, they deliver tracks of skittering idiosyncratic brilliance, unwieldy but mesmerizing (“Tropical Iceland,” “My Egyptian Grammar.”) But when they’re not they sound like the musical equivalent of a kid who hasn’t taken her Ritalin, too many interesting ideas and not enough discipline to see them through.
This year Friedberger took a break from Fiery Furnaces and recorded a few songs on her own. Using the backdrop of her decade-long love affair with New York, her aim was to channel a sense of overt nostalgia. “I wanted to make the album come from a naïve perspective,” the singer told me. “Like the one I had when I first moved to New York and started playing music.”
The result, Friedberger’s solo debut, Last Summer, is the most impressive collection of songs she’s ever produced. “Glitter Gold Year” and “Early Earthquake” borrow the inventive percussive zaniness of certain FF tracks but most sound completely unique, like they’ve come from an artist we’re hearing for the first time. There are lovelorn guitar and piano tracks that pack emotive punch like “Heaven” and “I Won’t Fall Apart On You Tonight.” Jangly, vaguely funky guitar pop singles that would have fit in next to Joni Mitchell and Linda Rondstadt on 70′s radio (“Roosevelt Island”). And on tracks like the downbeat, noirish “Inn of the Seventh Ray” Friedberger demonstrates a Lynchian affinity for pleasurable spookiness. But what’s most astonishing about Last Summer is the consistently imagistic, beguiling, and utterly absorbing narratives Friedberger builds on almost every song, regardless of tone or tempo.
The entire album is peppered with those stand-out lines and phrases that, once you’ve heard them, feel so indelibly a part of your consciousness you wonder if these songs are secretly covers of some phantom musician you’ve been listening to since childhood. But her narrative skill is most completely illustrated on the five-plus-minute-long spoken word meditation “Owl’s Head Park,” a dreamlike poem on which the album’s theme of using the City’s landscape to trigger memories of a lost self is clearest. “I heard they got used bicycle parts out in Coney Island,” she speak-sings. “I chose my seat and my wheels, one pink and one white/ He said come back in one hour but I’ve got nothing to do / I only took one picture that day, it’s me on the bike posing next to a while Lamborghini on Manhattan Avenue/ I didn’t know my way so I couldn’t get home to you/ I didn’t know my way so I couldn’t ride home to you.”
In “Goodbye to All That” Didion is writing about loving New York in part to figure out why she had to leave. “It’s often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor,” she writes. “It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young.” Anyone who has lived in New York long enough eventually asks themselves the same question: is it still worth it? “Why keep traveling if it doesn’t get better the second time around?” Friedberger repeatedly asks on “My Mistakes,” Last Summer‘s excellent opening track. But for her the answer answer is simple: because it still might.