It’s somewhat funny how little most people know about Leslie Feist. Ask your average music fan these days how they know Feist, and they’ll likely make mention of her last album “The Reminder” and the hit single “1,2,3,4”, spurred in large part by an iPod/iTunes commercial. At least a wider variety of people know who she is, compared to a number of similar and in special cases better artists. Still, it’s a shame that her strong debut “Let It Die” fails to get noticed, along with her great contributions to Broken Social Scene before that. With such a step forward in the fame game and plenty of people keeping a close eye on what she does next, you’d expect Feist to go the crowd-pleasing route. After all, alienating a set of fans that just came on board with your last record would seem like the wrong move from a financial and business perspective. On the other hand, playing it safe also tends to result in a loss of musical integrity, falling under the guise of “selling out” and proclamations that your music “isn’t as good as it once was”. The good news to come from Feist’s third full length “Metals” is that she appears to make it clear that she’s sticking to her guns and continuing to explore new avenues for her particular sound. If that puts her newfound popularity at risk, so be it.
Okay, so Feist isn’t exactly rewriting her songbook or taking risks that are so obtuse your auditory gag reflex kicks in. If anything, she tries to stay cool and humble on “Metals”, pretty much keeping her head down trying not to stir the pot too much. A track like “A Commotion” causes just a little bit of one with its half-spoken chorus and male choir shouting the song title. “Anti-Pioneer” starts small and eventually swells with strings to the point of almost bursting, while “Undiscovered First” gets sharply rock and roll with some buzzsaw electric guitar work. Save for those momentary flashes of something different, there’s a remarkably even keel to the rest of the album. You can use any number of words to help describe it, such as nice, lovely, enjoyable and perhaps even somber, but those are all pretty middle-of-the-road terms. “Metals” is certainly better than a middle-of-the-road album. Those disappointed by the lack of lighthearted pop songs have only the earworm single “How Come You Never Go There” as their solace, and even that doesn’t come close to touching “1,2,3,4”. Mostly these new tracks play up Feist’s softer, slower and more ballad/torch song side, and if that’s a side of her you like, there’s so much to be pleased about. “Cicadas and Gulls” is acoustically perfect for a quiet ride through some pastoral countryside, shortly before it takes off into something bigger and more glorious and gorgeous. If you need sweet and simple, “Bittersweet Melodies” should suit you perfectly with its light touches of flute and xylophone for added spice. Feist goes nightclub cabaret on “Caught A Long Wind”, a slowly rolling acoustic and piano number that throws in some light strings for an extra dose of dramatic effect.
Sweeping drama doesn’t exclusively show itself in the instrumentals though. Right from opening track “The Bad in Each Other”, Feist is talking about relationships that are doomed to fail. At least it has the courage to do so in a brass section of glory. But “Metals” is really less of a romantic relationship-themed record than her last couple, instead choosing to shift focus a little bit to the sheer grandiosity of nature itself. You can catch those themes first and foremost by examining the song titles, which make references to wind and pioneers and cicadas/gulls and undiscovered things. The lyrics often espouse a respect and compassion for the natural world, primarily as a solace from the everyday issues we as human beings face. This movement away from more intimate moments and towards bigger and broader themes surprisingly doesn’t take much away from each track’s overall impact. That’s likely because while a sunset is very much a massive event in nature, a quieter song about it brings a certain personalization and the feeling of a day winding down towards an end rather than building up towards a beginning. If Feist is pandering to her extended fan base, it comes through almost entirely with her lyrics because of how generalized they are compared to what she’s done before.
The thing that made the first two Feist records so damn great was how free-flowing and charming they were. She could go from the sparse acoustics of “Gatekeeper” to a funkier, synth-laden “One Evening” and back around to a bright, handclap-infused pop single in “Mushaboom”. On “The Reminder”, toe-tappers like “I Feel It All” and “Sea Lion Woman” made for some serious thrills amid the more somber, lounge-inspired numbers. Such diversity is not really present on “Metals”, and it really could have used some. If she had crafted an entire record of fanciful pop songs that lack of diversity would still remain, though the music itself would be far easier to digest. Here is an album that feels like the end of a long day. It’s not necessarily tired or depressed, just a bit worn down and in need of some serious relaxation. Sit on your couch with some dim lighting and the alcoholic beverage of your choice and put this record on as your soundtrack. It should engage your mind as it relaxes your body. At least it’s still moderately effective in that way. Despite its flaws, one of the best things that can be said about “Metals” is that it is true to Feist’s uncompromising vision. It may not be what everybody else had in mind, but it’s probably better as a result.