Eleanor Friedberger's debut solo album, Last Summer, matches her work in the Fiery Furnaces in that it's a swirl of Beat poetry, prog hierophancy and Muppet Show antics.
On album opener "My Mistakes," she's in playful Muppet mode, with the song's insistent thrum girded by calypso squelches. The song's spiritual cousin is Liz Phair's "Whip-Smart," in that it's meant to undercut an icy, chanteuse-y image with juvenile silliness. While the slippery slope that started on "Whip-Smart" led inevitably to Phair's dissolute rapping on "Bollywood," Friedberger possesses a wry decorum that keeps her from embarrassing herself (perhaps to her discredit).
When Friedberger acts playful, it never quite works. She's like the humorless girl smoking in the corner, with opinions about post-structuralist theory and lots of tripping-on-acid stories—who can't tell a good joke. She's much more convincing on songs like "Inn of the Seventh Ray," where she dons her ceremonial robes and unleashes psychedelic rambling. When Friedberger reaches for operatic, quasi-mystical heights, she's sort of thrilling.
Then there are tepid moments like "Scenes From Bensonhurst," a song that's gauzy and aimless and filled with tiny observations that add up to exactly nothing. When Friedberger fashions herself as an ersatz Ginsberg, she's quite boring. When she weaves aggrandizing rock mythology, she's almost fun. The album's downfall is that it's mostly stuck in a jammy, midtempo 1970s rut ("Glitter Gold Year," for example).
Friedberger needs to go louder, get noisier, open portals to Ragnarok and bludgeon us with her warhammer.