October 11, 2011

Test Spins: Feist, Metals

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After a four-year hiatus, Leslie Feist has finally dusted off her guitar and warmed up her vocal chords. While her last album, The Reminder, brought her to the commercial forefront, Metals reveals a completely different side of the singer/songwriter. The album is a genre shifter, displaying her music at its most versatile. What may start off as bluesy shifts to a ska piano ballad before you even realize. While this is nobly experimental, it makes some of the songs unsettling and hard to grasp. But perhaps this feistiness of genre is exactly what she intended for this new work.

The only certainty of this original sound is that it is far from the pop attributed to Feist after her mega-hits, “1 2 3 4” and “I Feel It All.” In Metals, we are reminded that she can still create songs other than the cookie-cutter pop anthem with a hook that fits into our minds so perfectly (and doesn’t come out). Contrarily, these songs are far from catchy; most are difficult to even tap your foot to.

Much of this intangibility comes from the exorbitant amount of subtleties in the instrumentals. They are so varied and frequent that it is overwhelming to the ear. From conch shells to actual horns, nyckelharpa to classical strings, there is so much in the music that is easily neglected upon first listen. All that the listener really picks up on are the bells, chimes and clapping percussion that are so characteristic of Feist. However, after a few listens, we realize how adeptly she has colored outside of these melodic and instrumental lines. One does not often hear punk rock guitar atop a steady string background as in “A Commotion,” but she integrates this sound quite naturally.

The album opens with a bang in “The Bad in Each Other.” The percussive back beat and deep horns lend to a more intense sound than we have heard of Feist. The meter changes on us constantly, creating an uneasiness in the verses. Then, just when you think you’ve got a sense of these rhythms, Feist throws a completely different, lighter chorus at us, complete with delicate strings.

A glimpse of the bubbly Feist is, ironically, heard in “Graveyards.” When a backup chorus comes in with the words, “Bring them all back to life,” it is difficult to not start singing along. Another of the more accessible melodies of the album appears in “Comfort Me,” opening and closing with the especially memorable words: “When you comfort me, it doesn’t bring me comfort, actually.” The melody given to these words is repeated throughout the song, but is reinvented with each verse. The same tuneful propensity holds true for “The Circle Married the Line” and “Bittersweet Melodies.”

The album’s two gems, “Caught a Long Wind” and “Anti-Pioneer” show Feist at her best. The former is a beautifully sung ballad over a steady and alluring piano progression. String tremolo and soft guitar underscore the somber query of the lyrics, “Where will we go?” “Anti-Pioneer,” a work that took Feist around ten years to finally piece together, is dark yet coolly relaxed. The string lines in this piece are chill-inducing, rivaling those played at the end of Dexter episodes (the “Blood Theme” to be annoyingly specific).

The bad that comes with this organic, many-layered sound is that many of these songs don’t stick at all. While the instrumentals are innovative and impressive, some of the songs fall short of background music. “Get it Wrong, Get it Right” and “Cicadas and Gulls” go by as intriguing listening experiences, but they don’t exactly stay with you afterwards. These songs are simply too lackadaisical to be memorable. While Feist’s first single “How Come You Never Go There” showcases her voice at its bluesiest, the repetitive background ends up being nothing but detrimental. “Undiscovered First” seems to take a similar route, until the wailing guitars, drums and backup singers come in and save the song.

It is during these weaker songs that we must cling to the one rock in this tempest of complexity: Feist’s ethereal voice. However, with time, and with appreciation of the intricacy of the music that Feist has given us, these songs grow on the ear. All judging aside, it is reassuring to know that Feist, although showered with attention for her more pop-oriented songs the past few years, has maintained her place as one of the more original songwriters in the music world today. While some songs in Metals are lackluster, the good ones truly glisten.

Original Author: Martha Wydysh