The real first Feist album.
Before I go any farther, let me explain that I'm not talking about the 2004 release, "Let It Die", that first brought Feist to the attention of the musical community. That's the album a lot of people think of as her debut, and it's the first one she recorded for a major label, but there's another that predates that album, and that's the one I'm here to talk about.
"Monarch", which appears to have been self-released, came out in 1999, and has quite a different sound than the two major label Feist albums. I didn't pay any attention to Feist until the release of her 2007 LP, "The Reminder", about which I wrote on this blog around the time it came out. Back around that time, I downloaded her other two albums, "Let It Die" and "Monarch", and burned them both to a single CD, but I don't think I listened to either of them all that much at the time. Neither really left an impression on me, and I didn't go back to either of them until recently when a friend and I got into a conversation about Feist. I was singing the praises of "The Reminder", but my friend had only ever heard "Let It Die", so I told her I'd email her one of my favorite tracks from "The Reminder". When I did so, I sent along a track from "Monarch" as well, as I vaguely remembered that album sounding quite a bit different from either of the two more recent Feist albums.
The track I picked from "Monarch" was its opening track, "It's Cool To Love Your Family". At the time, I was just thinking of it as "Family", as that was the name my mp3 carried, and the name that the song is referred to by in at least half of the online references I can find. I chose it to send to my friend because it was first on the album and therefore was the only song from it that I really remembered. But when I played it before I emailed it to her, I was drawn to it, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, unlike the more recent Feist albums, it featured electric rather than acoustic guitar. The riffs Leslie Feist was playing on that electric guitar, combined with the solid rhythm section backing her up, made her sound much more like an indie rock singer-guitarist than the more acoustic-based songwriter she'd seemed to be on "Let It Die" and "The Reminder". I may have liked her songwriting on "The Reminder" a lot, but I can't pretend that a more electrified, indie-based sound isn't more attractive to me than the softer acoustic one she had on that album. That right there was enough to kindle a sudden interest in "Family", and in "Monarch" as a whole, more than a year after my initial acquiring of the album.
But what really drew me in was the song itself. The verses were catchy and upbeat, but it was the chorus that really caught my attention. Feist's repetition of (what turned out to be) the title line, "It's cool to love your family," really stuck with me. As I mentioned a couple days ago in my entry about Ms. Marvel, I spent about a week's total time at my parents' house over the last month or so, during that time we call "the holiday season." It was stressful and discomfiting, and I felt very ambivalent about the entire thing. A song with a chorus about how it's cool to love your family is bound to set off a torrent of mixed emotions inside me at any time, but I'm particularly vulnerable to it now. The rest of the lyrics to the song seem like a pretty straightforward tribute, at least over the course of the first two verses, in which Feist pays tribute to past ancestors (even as she teases herself, just a little bit, for bragging on them). But then in the last verse, there's something else going on. She sings: "In the Copenhagen city morgue, the dead sleep in metal slips, called at last. And someone loved them once, and someone loves them still. Someone misses them, and someone always will." She's saying that family is something we'll always have, even when we've got nothing else. Family is our tie to the world, to something outside of ourselves that we'll always belong to, always matter to. And maybe you can see exactly why I'd say this, or maybe you can't, but the truth is that even contemplating that concept makes me feel weird and upset.
But that's not Leslie Feist's fault. She's written a really good song here, and I'd say that its ability to elicit an emotional reaction from me only underscores that fact, no matter how ambivalent an emotional reaction it is. There are elements of the song's music that enhance its power, particularly the juxtaposition of Feist's rather rocked-out electric guitar with a string quartet that adds an extra layer of melody to the song's later verses. This juxtaposition is a pretty accurate summation of the entire album, at least its musical elements, which is something I learned when I was drawn by my enjoyment of "(It's Cool To Love Your) Family" to listen to the entire thing.
That opening track, while excellent, is hardly the only highlight that "Monarch" has to offer. In fact, other than a couple of less-than-stellar tracks at the end, it's excellent all the way through. "It's Cool To Love Your Family" is followed by two quieter tracks. "Onliest" is one of the only ones here with acoustic rather than electric guitar used as the rhythm instrument. This song is a quiet, mournful ballad, and in it, I can hear the sound that made up most of "The Reminder". Songs like "So Sorry" and "How My Heart Behaves" can trace their roots directly back to this track. It's followed by "La Sirena", a dark and moody track that uses reverbed-out electric leads to create the sonic impression of a hot summer night. Over these leads and a subdued rhythm section, Feist sings the chorus: "You are the end of me." This song sounds like a passionate moment between two lovers, and succeeds in creating a palpable atmosphere.
It's followed by what is pretty much my favorite song here, and definitely the most straightforward rocker on the album. "One Year A.D." makes a convincing case for Leslie Feist as a secret, unsung guitar hero. The band plays this one in a power-trio format, and Feist cranks the gain and reverb on her guitar to get a classic Fender Twin sound not too far from that of Dick Dale in his mid-60s prime. She doesn't rip off any double-note surf leads, instead delivering an excellent double-tracked solo mid-song, in which the two tracks harmonize with each other, then lead into a fired-up bridge. After the bridge, the guitars drop out completely, and Feist sings a verse quietly over the rhythm section playing quietly. This all just sets her and her guitar up to come back in louder than ever, and the song drives forward into a powerful climax, complete with reverb-spring noise. It's the sort of track that makes me sorry that I never got to see Feist leading an electric power trio, playing basement shows back in the day before anyone knew who she was. I don't even know that such shows ever took place, but I sure hope so.
Anyway, the next song on the album is the title track, and it represents an abrupt gear change. Feist doesn't play guitar at all on this one. Instead, the string quartet that played on the album's first two tracks takes over, laying down complex, multilayered melodies over a rocking rhythm section for the first two and a half minutes of the song. At that point, though, the bass and drums drop out completely, leaving the string quartet to move through a series of classical-sounding melodies before finally coming back to the song's main melody, over which Feist sings the chorus again, finally bringing the rhythm section back in for the final minute of the song. It's a moving moment that might very well have worked on either of her two subsequent albums, but actually doesn't sound much like anything she's attempted since.
The second half of the album is a bit spottier than the first half, but it starts out well with a slow, emotional track called "That's What I Say, It's Not What I Mean". This is yet another example of Feist's talent for writing sincere, straightforward lyrics that cut to the heart of emotional matters. "You don't have to worry about me," she sings in the first verse. Then follows that line with the song's title: "That's what I say; it's not what I mean." In the second verse, she plaintively asks, "When will a time come that I could hear a sad love song that doesn't speak to me?" Damn. Yeah, I've been there.
"Flight #303" isn't a bad song, revisiting the power-trio lineup with a poppier version of earlier upbeat tunes. However, for me it's marred by the jaunty backing vocals (which appear to be Feist herself, using double-tracking to transform her voice into a backup vocal trio), which appear on the choruses of the song chanting "three-oh-three" to a tune I find slightly cloying. Once again, this is a track I wish I could have heard live; live, there wouldn't have been four tracks of Feist singing, just a less-annoying single lead vocal. I wish that were the choice she'd made for this song while in the studio as well. And by the way, I wish she had stuck with lead guitar instead of having the song's solos played by electric piano.
"Still True" begins with Feist by herself, singing and playing her reverbed-out electric guitar. When the rest of the band comes in, the presence of the same electric piano that played the solos on "Flight #303" bothers me a bit, but it's not as jarring or annoying as it is on the previous track. However, as good as this song is at doing the slow, loud, dramatic thing, I feel like it would be a lot better with a louder electric guitar playing the song's rhythm chords through that same high-gain reverbed-out Fender Twin sound that showed up on "One Year A.D." That said, this song is too good for any production or instrumentation choice to have that much of an effect on it.
"The Mast" mixes acoustic and electric guitars together for a sound that somewhat resembles that of "La Sirena". However, where that song sounded sensual in nature, this one is more emotional, expressing a yearning desire for a deeper emotional connection with a seemingly casual lover. I can't really relate at this point to the specifics of the circumstances the lyrics describe, but the music communicates a deeper feeling that I've felt plenty of times. "New Torch" closes the album, and has a vaguely Eastern sound to it, using the string quartet in a much different fashion than it's been used elsewhere on "Monarch". By itself, it's not one of the best songs on the album, but in its place as the final track, it's perfect, its instrumental coda creating the perfect finale for the album as a whole.
One interesting thing that I've learned as a result of unearthing my CD-R of the first two Feist albums--I really don't think that much of "Let It Die". I'm glad it wasn't my introduction to her music, for if it had been, I may never have listened to anything else she's done. Where "The Reminder" was concerned, I liked songs like "My Moon, My Man" and "Brandy Alexander" the least, finding their jaunty pop, complete with adult-contemporary production sheen, offputting. However, "The Reminder" also featured songs that reminded me somewhat of Nick Drake, such as "The Park" and "The Water", and more conventionally soft-rock tracks that still had enough emotion to save them in my eyes, such as "So Sorry" or "How My Heart Behaves". "Let It Die" has some decent stuff on it, most notably its opening trio of "Gatekeeper", "Mushaboom", and the title track, but as the album progresses, it gets more and more on my nerves. "One Evening" and "Leisure Suite" are like "My Moon, My Man" only a good bit worse, and while the Ron Sexsmith cover ("Secret Heart") is OK by me, the Bee Gees and Blossom Dearie covers ("Inside And Out" and "Tout Doucement" respectively) are damn near insufferable. There's a bunch of overproduced treacle to wade through on the latter two thirds of this album if you want to hear the actually quite good jazz ballad closer, "Now At Last", on which Feist demonstrates her aptitude as a torch singer. Mostly, it just doesn't seem worth it to me. Maybe the problem is that I've got it on a CD with "Monarch", which is a record that definitely strikes a different mood than "Let It Die". Really, though, I think no matter what context I hear "Let It Die" in, I'm always going to find it an uneven and mediocre offering.
Not so "Monarch". Oh, no indeed. It's a shame that neither of the major labels who've issued Feist's two higher-profile albums have seen fit to reissue this album in a more easily obtainable version. As it is, I'm going to have to content myself with my burned copy, because you can bet that I'm not going to pay the $500 it currently commands on Ebay. However you obtain this album, though, it's definitely worth having. And as much as I like her most recent album, I kind of wish she'd done more like "Monarch". Its 10 songs are over all too quickly, if you ask me.
Feist - It's Cool To Love Your Family
Feist - One Year A.D.