By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Let It Die
Cherry Tree Records/Interscope
Leslie Feist's Let It Die asks for attention by grazing your ankles with blades of wheat grass. Pleasant, romantic, and harmless, it's likely to inspire considerably more devotion and indifference than animosity. But certain sourpusses, should they hear a Feist track on the radio or at an independently owned chain of gift shops, will dismiss it as adult-contemporary bath gel, Norah Jones music for those who fancy themselves too cool for Norah Jones, and for those who don't.
That's mostly but not entirely wrong. For one thing, Let It Die, released last year in Europe and Canada and recently issued stateside by Cherry Tree Records, is good, all in all. For another, it's "adult alternative" these days. Music-biz sharpies haven't uttered "adult contemporary" without winking since Marc Cohn was sleepwalking 10 feet off of Beale. Adult alternative, as I understand it, is music for people who own an old English Beat album, a decent vegetable steamer, and a house. And it's music for the whole family. Check out this testimonial, reported by the Toronto Star, from Martin Kierszenbaum, a senior VP for Interscope Records (I cannot tell a lie; Cherry Tree Records is an Interscope imprint): "I love [Feist's record], my kids love it. I gave it to my mother-in-law, who listens to Andrea Bocelli. People who listen to Le Tigre love it. If we tried excluding her from any demographic in the marketplace, it would be a disservice, because I think her music is beautiful and deserves to be heard by as many people as possible."
To this end, Interscope is distributing the record free at churches, head shops, hockey games, and Take Back the Night marches. No, not really. Don't assume, however, that Feist shares her handlers' noble visions of market saturation. When pro-diabetes cow haters McDonald's offered the singer long green to use one of her songs as a jingle, she said, "Screw you and the Hamburgler you rode in on" or something to that effect. So Feist hasn't forgotten her punk roots. Her high school band won a battle of the bands contest and got to open for the Ramones. Later, she played supporting roles with several semi-notables, including her naughty former roommate Peaches and Toronto collective Broken Social Scene, whose mixed-bag variety show You Forgot It in People has Feist singing lead and backups on several cuts.
Let It Die, her second solo outing, is a collection of six originals and five covers produced by Chilly Gonzales and Renaud Letang. It leaves indie-world almost entirely, favoring slurry blues coos and folk-disco cabaret touched by Billie Holiday (what isn't?), Sade, Burt Bacharach, Bonnie Raitt, Dusty Springfield, Manu Chao, Blossom Dearie, Ron Sexsmith, and the Bee Gees.
In keeping with the Interscope cat's no-target-market line, Let It Die is at times real classy-like and at times lumpenbohemian. "Hang up your jacket/Undo my back zip," she coaxes on the black-tie "Leisure Suite." But on "Mushabloom," a knockout about young love that drifts around from a cash-strapped present to a bucolic future, she sings, "It may be years until the day/My dreams will match up with my pay." (Me, I'd rather have the pay match up with the dreams, but whatever.) So perhaps this is penthouse make-out music, made by the weekend housesitters.
And like albums by Chet Baker and Nick Drake, Let It Die is nearly vampiric. Some of its charm shrivels in daylight. Feist's acoustic guitars, dark and untouched by plectrums, seem to be played from a slouch in the style that considerate urban neighbors employ after midnight. The album is at turns offhand and slick, sometimes sparsely accompanied with pianos and guitars, sometimes quietly loaded up with bells and whistles, loops and scratches, plus Moog-y lines repatriated, sometimes by force, from the Isley Brothers' 3 + 3.
Some of those adornments are pointless, and the old-fashioned touches are yesterday's yesterday, stuff folks already revived to death in the mid- and late '90s. But on "Mushabloom" (FYI: I'm cool with writing that title, but I refuse to say it), all the extras are necessary: the discreet samples, the playground handclaps, the channel-hopping guitar chords (double your pleasure under headphones), the chorus's unexpected horns, the sexy (male) backup vocals, the saloon piano, the angel-food-cake harmonies toward the end, all of it. It's as perfect as it needs to be. Oh, and I forgot the four piano notes--bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp--that introduce the second chorus. That's funny. Any fool can tell a joke with words or a bicycle horn, but earning a chuckle from an instrument that can't imitate flatulence takes skill.
None of the other originals come close to that. A few are slight ("Leisure Suite"), a few are sorta moving (the title track), none are all-out turkeys. The covers I'm generally less taken with. The traditional "When I Was a Young Girl" is better than the Odetta and Nina Simone versions, but then again, I don't like those versions. Feist's take on "Secret Heart" by Ron Sexmith, whose phrasing she recalls elsewhere, is lilting and nicely sung (like most everything here), but it'll take an additional truckload of lilt to shake my contention that Ron Sexsmith is a talented bore. She closes with two café/cabaret numbers: "Tout Doucement" ("Very Gently," more or less, or you might say "Easy Now") and "Now at Last." Both were earlier recorded in 1956 by East Durham, N.Y.-born Francophile Blossom Dearie. After the cute "Tout" ends, I keep hearing a mysterious voice in my head exclaiming "Oh! Capital!" (an English tourist, no doubt). I don't care for that. But I don't miss Dearie's backup singers, one of those Ritz cracker outfits Secretary of State John Foster Dulles used to demand be hired to ruin songs and slow the impending cultural revolution. "Now at Last" doesn't suggest a big-city cabaret act in Feist's future, but it's a valiant, heartfelt effort.
The most unexpected remake is of the Bee Gees' "Inside and Out," which was called "Love You Inside Out" when it appeared on 1979's Sprits Having Flown, one of the first dozen or so albums I bought with my parents' own money. It's correct and common for oldsters and hipsters to doff caps to the Gibb Bros. '60s baroque R&B vegemite, or "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" (surgically, by the way), or '75's great Main Course. And sections of Saturday Night Fever have been spotted by the Human Genome Project. But Spirits Having Flown, that shit's strictly for people who've always thought it'd be fun to get it on with Barry and don't much care which song is playing. So hats off to Feist and company for reviving this three-quarters-not-bad-at-all tune, for tempering its schlock but also understanding that masking its schlock is as easy as covering the Sears Tower with a bandana. You can dance to it, or throw it on the hi-fi during next week's all-family Victoria Day feast. What, y'all don't do that?