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"You know I do my best thinking when I'm flying down the bridge," declares Eleanor Friedberger immediately within the first few seconds of her first solo LP, Last Summer. In the speedy delivery and curious content of that one line, she tells you a lot about what to expect over the next 40 minutes. Her voice is never far from the listener, pausing only briefly for instrumentation—cerebral, yet charmingly human, she speaks in apparent non-sequiturs that still manage true feeling, if not precise meaning.

On the surface, this sounds like par for the course for her time with brother Matthew in the always-left-turning Fiery Furnaces. The FF have built a reputation on two things: a truly stunning, see-it-to-believe-it live show; and some of the most divisive records of the past decade. I'll admit to being entirely charmed by the former and somewhat at arm's length about the latter. Try as I might, the fact of the matter is that I rarely go back to Furnaces albums like 2004's Blueberry Boat or 2006's Bitter Tea. The band have certainly always worn their contrarian, convoluted nature on their collective sleeve, so fair enough. But for me, this stridency came at the cost of sacrificing what were some exceptional melodies—moments that were rarely allowed to settle. This was especially frustrating when I was so enamoured with their 2003 debut Gallowsbird's Bark, and the killer longer-than-your-normal-EP EP, from 2005. On these albums, the band found the temperament to leave some of their more willful wanderings behind, focusing instead on their more tuneful gifts.

Maybe it's a little too easy to lay all the blame for this on Matthew, the sibling whose proudly abrasive nature has led to many quotable moments and a particularly indulgent solo effort, 2006's double-disc Winter Women and Holy Ghost Language School. But with Last Summer as evidence, I feel we can lay this debate to rest. Eleanor's the friendly Friedberger, and her new album is exceptional—one that revels in the peculiar personalties cultivated by FF without treating the whole affair like some puzzle unlocked by codewords you'll never guess. Eleanor's still the same talkative, edgy wallflower we've always loved on past albums. But freed from the exhausting prog-pop posedowns of her brother's arrangements, she finally reveals herself in a fashion that was simply not possible before.

And so it is that an album that was barely on my radar leading up to its release has turned out to be one of the best things I've heard in 2011. Concise, unassuming, but wickedly smart, this is a great little record that deserves your ear—whether you count yourself a Fiery Furnaces fan or not.

(Eleanor Friedberger will be performing live in our shop tonight [Tue. Jul 19] at 5:30pm.)

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