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Feist
Metals - CHERRYTREE/ INTERSCOPE
FILTER Grade: 84%

By Breanna Murphy on October 3, 2011

 

Feist

In order to report truthfully on the condition of the broken heart—its causes and effects—it takes a heroic kind of candidness; and if you’re going to write pop songs about it, you’d better find the sincerest accompaniment to soundtrack the dissolution of relationships. Our heroine in delivering this burden of blame and regret might be Leslie Feist.

Five years after her initial, under-the-radar debut, Monarch (Lay Your Jewelled Head Down)—which still remains an ultra-out-of-print, coveted indie—her 2004 breakthrough Let It Die arrived smack-dab in the middle of the height of her activity with Canadian super-collective Broken Social Scene and guest spots with Norway’s Kings of Convenience. Die, which was recorded in Paris, is a playful and precious pop gem that draws generously and appropriately from European jazz and Brazilian bossa nova featuring sensual rhythms and minimal percussion on a mixture of original songwriting, traditionals and covers (Bee Gee’s “Inside and Out”; Ron Sexsmith’s “Secret Heart”). Here, the heartache is served well in small doses as wistful, tragic facts (“The saddest part of a broken heart / Isn’t the ending so much as the start” from the title track). Musically, the songs are sparse, delicate assemblies—on the forever-enjoyable “Mushaboom” only handclaps, tambourine, piano and casual acoustic-picking take up the spaces—but with the compositional arrangements of longtime friend Gonzalez (producer and multi-instrumentalist Jason Charles Beck), a hint of the expansive sneaks through the cracks, if only in momentary glimpses.

The Reminder followed to great effect, saturating the better parts of 2007 and 2008 with significant pop-culture crossover: singles a-plenty (the strangely cheery yet self-defeating “I Feel It All”; the devastating, weight-laden “Limit to Your Love”), numerous television appearances and props from everyone from the Shortlist Music Prize to Sesame Street. Reminder’s songs are a double-edged sword: the tracks are upbeat, catchy and endlessly entertaining—an attestation to their wild popularity, if only slightly disingenuous; concentrating on the lyrical content, the record turns darker and sadder than what it exudes superficially and musically. On “My Moon, My Man,” her lover is as constant as that waning and waxing celestial object and “1 2 3 4” counts the moments to a struggling relationship’s end as both parties have grown apart. After being known best as one among many, The Reminder’s small masterpieces and wide acclaim put Leslie Feist notably out on her own, surpassing the chorus and taking her place as spotlight-shone soloist.

Now, four years on, is Metals. Feist, Gonzales and another Reminder collaborator, Mocky (Dominic Salole), traveled to Big Sur for the recording—that place of endless vistas of mountainous California coast and a limitless Pacific Ocean blue rolling seamlessly into resultant beaches and coves shaped by years of time and circumstance.

Photo by Mary Rozzi

Time and circumstance are indeed again significant themes in Feist’s new work—especially when it comes to relationships between people and places—and they weigh heavily against the music, where agreeable pop melodies have been replaced wholly with a temperamental set of strings and impatient piano chords. Metals is not entirely an easy listen; the message remains the same, even if the manner of expression has shifted. Though she claims herself more narrator than confessor here, it’s hard to remove the deeply personal impressions from being truths. We are, after all, best suited to comment on what we know intimately. However, if the things on her mind are purely observational, it’s a harsh and brutally righteous commentary to a sad truth of some relationships. “A good man / And a good woman / Can’t find the good in each other,” she laments on Metals’s opening track.

A Gothic vein of storytelling runs through the record; of bringing dead things from the past back to life and climbing gnarly branches of family trees, set to an anthemic chorus of voices and French horn fanfare (and that’s just on “Graveyard”). Nature, too, takes a focus on the songs, as if to suggest the traps are not only set for humanity. Sam Beam would be pleased by the lolling Americana-folk guitar stroll on “Cicadas and Gulls”—a meandering lament to the Central Coast beetle that must play its song until the end of its days, and to the birds that fly away but never too far from home.

(If you can’t tell already, one does not easily visualize any of these melodies set to multi-colored synchronized dancers, nor alongside any enraptured Henson creations helping her count upwards from “1.”)

Here, there are no foot-tapping Top 40 hits, no moments for sing-along bliss. The pop has calmed itself down into something plaintive. The mood and music of Metals is somber and poetic—but not always quiet—finally matching the emotional excavation she’s written about throughout her career. Alongside Feist, Mocky, and Gonzalez are notable contributions by co-producer Valgeir Sigurðsson (Bonnie “Prince” Billy), percussionist Dean Stone (Apostle of Hustle) and keyboardist Brian LeBarton (Beck), and they fill the recordings to the brim with sounds. Together, they execute their orchestra and choir to their fullest effects; sometimes consuming (the build-up to “Comfort Me”; an overwhelming “A Commotion”), othertimes fragile (“Bittersweet Melodies”), but always a complement to the most alluring, heartbreaking instrument of all on Feist’s Metals: her voice.

Her ability to stretch out a single note into measures of prolonged emotion—changing its color and shape to suit her mood—has always been awe-inspiring, but the tone and direction of Metals allows it to communicate the words into something that fits the music. Through the length of the record, Feist reveals and unlocks the various sources of loneliness, mistakes and past-dwelling—a motif one hopes she might overcome one day—but after weathering the storm of one’s own actions, at the end you must eventually look out to the brightening of dark skies, finally: “Get it wrong / Get it wrong /Get it wrong / Get it right / Get it right / Get it right.” 

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