6/18/2007

Reminder.

So... the new Feist album. I've heard a lot about it from a lot of sources, and many of the people who've reviewed it have rightly called it great. It is great, greater than any album by any female alt-rock singer/songwriter has any right to be. I mean, it's better than Fiona Apple's last album, and I loved that (the released version, too--I love Jon Brion as much as the next guy, but he was not the one to get that album right. But I've been over this. Click here if you need a refresher). But I think a lot of people who are writing about it are still getting it wrong, because they don't seem to pick out the parts that I think are deserving of the most attention. In fact, a lot of times they zero in on tracks I consider weak or contrived, tracks that only work in the context of the full album, and proclaim their desire for more like this and less of the tracks that I love the most. So I'm going to go through this entire record and try to explain my take on it. Maybe some people who've made up their minds will hear it in a new way, or something. Whatever--I'll feel better, that's the important part.

Anyway, the album starts with "So Sorry", a track that immediately sets the tone for the entire album. The tone is one of sensitivity, but a sensitivity that's leavened with rueful awareness of social failings. The first two words we hear from Leslie Feist, beginning before a single note of music has been played, are "I'm sorry", but she follows that phrase by an explanation: "Two words I always think after you're gone, when I realize I was acting all wrong." She then calls herself selfish, but explains that her "patience is in short supply", and moves into the chorus with a plea: "We don't need to say goodbye. We don't need to fight and cry. We could hold each other tight tonight." Throughout, the instrumentation is soft and minimal--simple, strummed chords on an acoustic guitar with softly tapped percussion in the background. Feist's voice is much higher in the mix than both of these things, and nearly drowns out the music at certain points, especially on the chorus, when it nearly drops out entirely, giving her room to emphasize the pleading lines that remind me so much of things I myself have thought while still listening to the echo of the slamming door after past lovers have stormed out of my apartment.

If this was it for the song, it would still be incredibly affecting, painting a portrait of the remorse that follows a quarrel for so many of us. However, the second verse moves things to a higher plane of thought entirely. Departing from an immediate description of a situation between two specific people, she steps back and considers the human condition as a whole: "We're slaves to our impulses, we're afraid of our emotions. No one knows where the shore is; we're divided by the ocean, and the only thing I know is that the answer isn't for us." During this section of the song, soft humming vocals appear in the background, along with quiet vibes, which are the type of instrumental choices that could have made the song sound cheesy and overwrought. Instead, they are mixed if anything even lower than Feist's soft guitar strumming, and all they do is tastefully accentuate the mood of the song, which at this point is still dominated by the powerful, affecting sound of Feist's voice. Skipping a second chorus, she moves directly from the end of the second verse into a restating of the opening verse, which is now given a completely different context by the second verse. Instead of sounding like an apology to a lover for a quarrel, it comes across as a sadly accurate statement about the human condition. While I'm listening to this verse, I find myself thinking that we could almost fix everything that's wrong with the world if all of us could find it within ourselves to apologize, and to accept each other's apologies. I know that the reality of the situation is that most relationships are headed south on a permanent basis once the quarrels become severe enough for one person to storm out, and that apologies are never enough to heal the hurt that just tends to grow over time. But at the same time, I can totally understand the impulse to reach for those apologies as a panacea, to so powerfully want to be able to fix everything.

And this is just the first song on the record--there are still a dozen more here. Not all of them are as powerful and simple as "So Sorry", but on most of them it seems like Feist continues to reach for that same sort of simple, beautiful statement of a human emotion. The second track, "I Feel It All", is a more upbeat tune, based around a simple yet rollicking two-chord acoustic shuffle backed by simple piano chords and jazzy drumming. The lyrics to this tune are far more vague than those of the opening track, but I still get a sense of what she's singing about--that being the conflicting feelings that ensue upon the end of a relationship that had been steadily degenerating. A simultaneous feeling of loss and of release, of freedom. She mentions spreading her wings wide, but also sings at one point of being "stranded in a fog of words." There's a line about the gulf stream coming through an open door and pouring water on her head, which is yet another of many references to water-related natural phenomena that litter this album.

"I Feel It All" doesn't seem as profound as "So Sorry", but it's still an excellent tune. However, the track that follows it, "My Moon My Man", is a bit more problematic for me. This is the big critical favorite right here, the song that many people seem to want more of. It was the first song I heard from the album, and while I thought it was decent enough, it definitely left me less than enthused for the rest of the album. Thankfully, it's wildly unrepresentative. Where most of "The Reminder" features sparse instrumentation, with Feist's vocals far up front in the mix and her lyrics making very direct observations about life (especially as relates to interpersonal relationships), "My Moon My Man" is overproduced, buried under a multitude of incidental instrumentation, and features whimsical lyrics that are generally devoid of the simple brilliance shown on many of the other tracks (though I am enamored of one verse, in which Feist refers to her relationship with her man/moon as "the dirtiest clean I know". That's a good phrase right there). This is the song that was designed to get on the radio, and while I hate that one even needs to exist, it certainly seems to have done its job, i.e. gotten a lot of critics talking. I find myself holding anyone who references this song prominently in discussions of this album in a certain contempt, thinking, "Oh you sucker, you fell for it hook, line and sinker."

That's not to say that I find "My Moon My Man" without redeeming qualities--far from it. In context on the album, it's actually quite wonderful. You see, it's roleplaying, pure and simple. It gives Feist the chance to step away from the direct revelations of many of the other songs on the album and pretend she's Billie Holiday or Tori Amos or someone. It creates a contrast between itself and the rest of the record, which merely highlights the starkness of the majority of the material here. Then, at the end of the track, we get what is undoubtedly one of my favorite moments on the album--the sound of Leslie Feist's bootheels clacking across a stone courtyard, as she runs away from the polished studio environment and across the street to the park.

"The Park" is everything "My Moon, My Man" is not, and everything I love most about this album. Soft acoustic guitar provides the only musical accompaniment to Feist's vocals, unless you count the audible birdsong that runs throughout the background of this song. There's no way they faked this in the studio, either--it's clearly audible that this song was recorded outside, surrounded by nature. You can hear the sound of the morning air, even when the birds aren't chirping, just by the difference between the sound of the acoustic guitar on this track and its sound on "So Sorry." The occasional horn accents that fill in the breaks in the vocals are almost certainly tracked in, but they don't hurt the ambience of the track. Feist's lyrics both offset and emphasize the obvious beauty of this song's setting by describing a mournful scene. "Why should he come back through the park? You thought that you saw him, but no you did not. It's not him who'd come across the sea to surprise you. Not him who'd know where in London to find you." The narrator of the song is that internal voice we all have, the one that comes for us in our most pathetic moments, calling attention to our own ridiculous moments of wishful thinking, making us feel all the worse by forcing us to acknowledge just how stupid the subconscious, hopeful train of thought we'd been engaging in really was. We've all had these moments, usually when we're at our lowest--sitting on our front porch and thinking we see the object of our affection walking up the street, when maybe said object doesn't even know where we live. It's never who you hope it's going to be, and that moment of realization, and the sinking feeling that accompanies it, are what Feist is bringing to life in this song. The sound is painful, but in a way it's beautiful too, just because it's always beautiful to hear a song that captures something you've felt. Maybe it felt terrible, but if this one musician knows what you were going through, then you're not as alone as you thought.

"The Water", which follows "The Park", is as claustrophobic as "The Park" was open. The entire song sounds muddy and muffled, as if Feist had headed back down to the basement with her 4-track, and recorded this song in the way she used to record back when she was still making demos in the late 90s. This might not always be the best policy, but it works incredibly well here, as the piano, vibes, and upright bass that provide the song's instrumental accompaniment sound like they were recorded underwater--which, in this context, is appropriate. Feist's vocals are also muffled and echoey, and her lyrics paint a picture of a northeastern coastline at night; a place where everything seems quiet even with the constant crashing of the surf always in the background. She personifies both the water and the coast through her lyrics, and both seem intimidated by their own ability to cause harm--"The water came to realize its dangerous size. The mountain came to recognize its steep and rocky sides." I feel like there's a metaphor about people here, too, but maybe I'm thinking too hard.

Next is another chance for Leslie Feist to become someone who is (presumably) another of her empowered-female-singer idols: Nina Simone. She sings Simone's "Sea-Lion Woman" backed primarily by a forest of handclaps and percussion, and succeeds in making it swing almost entirely through the persuasive force of her voice. Never let it be said that this woman doesn't have a set of pipes on her. "Past In Present" follows the Nina Simone cover, and is another fun, swinging acoustic song in the vein of "I Feel It All". This kind of thing seems to be what Feist does when she's on her default setting. That's not to say that there are a ton of songs like this on "The Reminder", but there are more of this kind of thing than anything else, and while it lacks the gravity of songs like "The Park" and "So Sorry", I'm not complaining, because this type of thing is fun, and she's good at doing it.

"Limit To Your Love" follows with something that lands almost squarely inbetween "The Park" and "My Moon My Man", but is much more like the former than the latter where my satisfaction quotient is concerned. It's got an understated yet catchy minor chord melody, but instead of burying it in layer upon layer of instrumentation, there's plenty of space in the song's arrangement, even as flute and orchestral flourishes give depth to the song's main melody, which is played on piano. This is yet another of Feist's "something is going wrong in this relationship" songs; for starters, the title is repeated over and over in the chorus of the song. "There's a limit to your love," she says, "like a waterfall in slow motion. Like a map with no ocean, there's a limit to your love." Never mind that those metaphors don't make that much sense--they're evocative, and that's what's important. It's the song's bridge that makes everything the plainest, though: "I can't read your smile," Feist sings. "It should be written on your face. I'm piecing it together. There's something out of place." There's no resolution to any of this, either; these statements are just left hanging, and overtop of a pleasant and rather upbeat melody. But things obviously aren't going to stay upbeat forever.

"1,2,3,4" is next, and at 2/3 of the way through the album has surprised some of the people I've talked to with its sequencing. A brilliant pop gem like this, they say, should be closer to the beginning of the record. But I have to admit that I don't know what they're talking about. It seems like it's in the perfect place, to me. The album ebbs and flows throughout, in a steady musical arc that mimics the rising and falling of waves on the ocean (hey, look, more water metaphors). For a song that, if it weren't for "My Moon My Man"'s overt studio polish, would be the most standout track on the album to hit at track 9 is perfect, especially with the way the music within the song steadily builds up to its second chorus and the rollicking bridge that follows it. A trumpet blows a solo, a chorus sings "sha-la-la", the piano throws in jolly ragtime fills, and you can just picture Leslie Feist stepping into the background, strumming her guitar with a big smile on her face.

But of course, the lyrics for this song aren't happy ones. Maybe Feist can't really manage to write happy lyrics right now, or maybe she appreciates the irony of putting sad, bittersweet lyrics over even the most upbeat of songs, but either way, she's done it again on this track. "Sleepless long nights, that's what my youth was for," she says on the first verse. She seems like she can't decide whether she misses all of that teenage angst, or is glad to be done with it. At the height of that big, jubilant instrumental break, she steps back up to the microphone and proclaims, "The former teenage boys, they're breaking your heart." And as she repeats this line for a second time, almost all of the music drops out, leaving her strumming her guitar, all alone, singing, "They're breaking your heart." A sad ending for an otherwise upbeat song.

The next track follows the previously established trend of dropping back into a quiet moment after any of the more upbeat songs. "Brandy Alexander" sounds, on casual listen, like a song about drinking too much. "My Brandy Alexander always gets me into trouble," Feist sings on the easily noticed chorus, but the verses tell another story. "I'd like to be the girl for him, and cross the sea and land for him," begins the first verse, and the chorus after this one is actually "He's my Brandy Alexander, always gets me into trouble." But he's not 100% at fault--"My addiction to the worst of him, the low moon helps me sing," she says on the next verse, and now the chorus is "I'm his Brandy Alexander, always get him into trouble." The song is admittedly not one of the best on the album--as a piece of music, it's a trifle, a bit of cocktail jazz that's playfully tossed off and would certainly not stand up on its own. But, as with "My Moon My Man", it has its proper context within the wider framework of "The Reminder", and its placement here makes sense.

"Intuition", though not as mournful sounding as "So Sorry" or "The Park", still falls into the same category as those songs. Like "The Water", this song sounds lo-fi, as if it too is a basement demo that sounded good enough to make it to the finished album. It's almost entirely Feist's voice, with strummed guitar chords buried even lower in the mix than they usually are. Her right hand makes a percussive sound as she strums the chords, sometimes seeming more to strike the strings than to actually strum them at all. When this happens, the guitar chords seem almost to disappear entirely, and the listener's focus is directed entirely on the words. And the words are a tough thing to explain, at least on this song. I get the point of the song very clearly--the concept of "intuition", especially for women, is seen as a panacea, but it's woefully limited, and there's no way anyone can really trust it. But it's hard to pick out individual lines where I can point out that this is what she's saying. There are a few really good lines here, though. The moment, at the end of the first verse, where she sings, "It's not about a boy, although, although..." This line is followed by a transition into a chorus that goes, "They can lead you, break you and defeat you," but I'm not even sure that this is a continuation of the previous line. In fact, I'm willing to let "although, although..." stand on its own. I know exactly what she means by that, whether she completes the thought or not. Later on, she delivers what is possibly my favorite line from this entire album (though it's tough to say this in view of how much I love most of the lyrics to "So Sorry", so maybe I shouldn't even try to make claims like that. Either way, the line is good): "A map is more unreal than where you've been, or how you feel." This line leads into the final point of the song, which brings all of the hypothetical talk of intuition back around to a very real example: "It's impossible to tell how important someone was, and how he might have changed it all, and how you might have changed it all for him." Finally, she stops playing guitar completely to sing several times, "Did I, did I..." It takes a few repetitions before she seems to have worked up the courage to finish the thought, at which point she starts strumming her guitar again, and finally gets it out: "Did I miss out on you?"

"Honey Honey" is just as sparse in instrumental accompaniment as "Intuition", but its accompaniment is much different. Background voices croon the same wordless melody line over and over, while a synthesizer and a harp play a melody of their own, which acts as counterpoint to that of the background vocals. Feist's voice once again dominates the sound of this track, and her lyrics reach once again for nautical metaphors to express another way in which love can go wrong. "Honey honey, out on the sea, in the doldrums thinking of me. Me on dry land, thinking of he, honey honey not next to me." It sounds like a song of lost love, of two people torn apart by circumstance, but the bridge of the song puts things into perspective. "Even if he wanted to, do you think he'd come back?" Feist sings, then answers her own question as the music flows back into the final verse: "Oh, no." Her "honey honey" has chosen to leave of his own free will, has pursued other things in life that seemed more important. I too have had multiple relationships ended by these sorts of choices, which are tough, but must sometimes be made nonetheless. If the way one's life is going forces one away from one's love, how can one choose to stay with love and lose everything else? And yet... how can you walk away? And how can the lover left behind leave things be? Feist repeats the second verse at the end of the song, but this time, instead of being on dry land, she's "in my boat, searching for he." As she reaches the end of the last line, the music suddenly stops, without even the natural sound of the last notes slowly dying out. It's as if we've been dropped off a cliff.

This sends us into "How My Heart Behaves", the final song on the album. This is the only other song that seems even close to the kind of heavily produced sound of "My Moon My Man", but rather than sounding saturated, as that song did, with unnecessary effects and superfluous instrumentation, "How My Heart Behaves" sounds rich and lush. The production does here what it's supposed to do--enriches a song that would have been able to stand on its own, making it into more than the sum of its parts. For me, this album is often more about vocals and lyrics than music, but on this song, the orchestral flourishes that lead into the choruses really make them stand out, as does the male voice who accompanies Feist on those choruses. "The cold heart will burst if mistrusted first", she and this unidentified male voice sing together. The lyrics here seem like an attempt to define once and for all what it is that makes us feel the way we do about our relationships with each other. A tall order, but you can't so much say that Feist succeeds or fails--the whole thing is too vague. She makes me feel something, though, especially as the final verse swells to a last chorus: the male voice sings "How her heart behaves", as Feist sings "The rain making me cry. The wind comes, fanning my yellow eye. The waves wave. The waves wave. This is how my heart behaves." I'm not sure what all of that means, but I can see it in my mind, as clear as day. This song succeeds, as does this entire album, on the strength of Leslie Feist's ability to paint a picture with words and sounds, and to speak simple truths about the complicated emotions that make up all of our most important life struggles. This album speaks to me. If it's truly a reminder of anything, it is that I'm alive.

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