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Live Review: Eleanor Friedberger at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg (6/28)

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    It’s been nearly four years since the Fiery Furnaces last released an album (2009’s Take Me Round Again) and just about two since Eleanor Friedberger first launched her solo career with 2011’s terrific Last Summer. In that time, a funny thing has happened: Eleanor Friedberger, the verbose, obfuscating, and willfully esoteric co-conspirator of Fiery Furnaces, has shifted, with surprising ease, into Eleanor Friedberger, the charming, direct, and warmly confessional solo songwriter. What are we to make of the new, revamped Eleanor? A fleeting solo detour before Fiery Furnaces resume their prolific output? Or the prelude to a longer, more rewarding singer-songwriter career to come?

    I don’t know the answer. But one thing was clear from the latter Friedberger’s Friday night homecoming performance at Music Hall of Williamsburg: as thrilled as the performer once was to tackle lines like “A lungio lathback made me a proposal” during her Furnaces tenure, these days she seems remarkably comfortable simply playing herself—whoever that character may be—as fans sing adoringly along without consulting a thesaurus.

    Perhaps Friedberger selected lo-fi outfit TEEN as her opening act as a sly nod to her former band—and not just because the group is also primarily composed of siblings (three sisters, one of whom, Kristina Lieberson, you’ll recognize from Here We Go Magic). Performing material from 2012’s In Limbo, TEEN’s strident rhythm section betrayed a similar fondness for prog and psychedelic elements, even as the band opted for fuzzy guitar tones over Blueberry Boat‘s controlled synths. In tone and delivery, TEEN was a slight step up from first opener Cassandra Jenkins, who performed folky, Wye Oak-style indie rock and turned out to be largely accompanied by Friedberger’s backing band. (It was refreshing, with indie festivals frustratingly male-dominated, to find each set of the night fronted by women.)

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    When Friedberger finally took the stage, clad in salmon pants and high white socks, she showed up alone to introduce a short film. It sort of makes sense, when you consider that Friedberger is the star of her own cinematic world on Last Summer and Personal Record and Brooklyn the soundstage, except that this spy film of sorts contained little plot or explanation and wasn’t quite a music video either. Within 15 minutes, thankfully, she was back onstage with a four-piece band, talk-singing her way through the teasingly insecure “I Don’t Want To Bother You”, followed by another disarmingly vulnerable promise: “I Won’t Fall Apart on You Tonight”. Though lyrically deft, these are straightforwardly melodic numbers, and Friedberger, winking, nodding, and prancing, seemed thrilled by how faithfully her band executed the studio arrangements. As she told L Magazine this week, “To get some faster recognition from the audience is satisfying after playing in a band for so long where people don’t know what the hell you are playing.”

    Still, eclectic numbers like the tropical “Echo or Encore” and the majestic “Owl’s Head Park” were sorely missed as Friedberger focused on Personal Record‘s driving, mid-tempo center—”Stare at the Sun”, “My Own World”, and the friendship anthem “When I Knew”—occasionally glossing over the album’s flute solos or backing vocals in favor of steady major-chord accompaniment. Effective but unassuming, the band seemed hesitant to steal Friedberger’s natural spotlight but performed better when they challenged and intensified her vocals, locking into a funky swagger on “Roosevelt Island” and waltzing towards catharsis on the wrenching, polyamory-themed ballad ”Other Boys”. They were particularly charged while jamming on “She’s a Mirror”, already stuck in the audience’s head after the film of the same name. Friedberger then performed “I Am Your Past” solo—a plaintive, compulsively singable highlight—and was rejoined by her bandmates for “Singing Time”, during which she confused the words, paused sheepishly, and, at her audience’s urging, began again with renewed confidence.

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    Friedberger’s songs are full of uncertainty and misadventure, but she takes a special sort of joy in singing them, a fact made abundantly clear as she pranced off the stage and into the audience during her set closer, an extended “My Mistakes”. She danced her way through the main floor as the band carried on and slowly, with a grin, made her way backstage. The crowd cheered for an encore (would “Echo or Encore” be too meta?), but Friedberger, as her solo records show, has learned to leave her audience pining for more.

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    Photography by Rachel Pincus.

    Setlist:
    I Don’t Want To Bother You
    I Won’t Fall Apart on You Tonight
    Heaven
    Stare at the Sun
    My Own World
    Inn of the Seventh Ray
    Roosevelt Island
    I’ll Never Be Happy Again
    When I Knew
    Other Boys
    Early Earthquake
    She’s a Mirror
    I Am Your Past (solo)
    Singing Time
    County Line (Cass McCombs cover)
    My Mistakes

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