Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Search For Honest Reflection: Feist's Metals (2011)

Metals (Arts&Crafts) by Feist is one of the most interesting releases of 2011. It’s an album that reveals a maturing artist with a willingness to take uncompromising risks.

Metals starts with the heavy beat of a drum kit who’s heart is alive and well in Feist's world, as we're carried into the finer points of a relationship on the opening cut, "The Bad In Each Other." It's a song in 6/8 that immediately grabs your attention because of its pulse and a horn section supplemented by a string quartet. It's a big sound because it's a big album that wants to be noticed.

Feist is an artist who can't easily be pigeon-holed into a music category because she's influenced by songs of all genres, be it pop, rock or jazz. This is certainly not a blues album, but her songs are often treated like woe-begotten ballads of a hard life. This is particularly true on the song "Graveyard," as Feist sings, "Our family tree is a hole from which we climb ... bring them back to life." A profound lyric to say the least, but this record is much darker and grittier than The Reminder (Arts&Crafts, 2007).

Metals is an album of honest reflection and heart-felt analysis because Feist took a year off after the overwhelming success of her last album; foregoing her muse and leaving music altogether until her muse came calling once again. Unlike her last recording, Metals has atmosphere that often clouds the emotional content of the songs. But I think Feist is aware of the difference between sounding emotionally detached from the music and songs that are superficial. This is particularly evident on all the tracks, but most especially in the song "Caught in a Long Wind.” The sound of Feist's voice in the centre of the mix feels cold because of the acoustic echo chamber in which she was recorded, but emotionally she's been able to dig a little deeper. The little bird she sings about has definitely unlocked her heart.

This is a very rough album, too, and it isn't all lush alternative rock. "A Commotion" kicks with its raw strings cranking out the time as aggressively as possible. It's a heavy track with its thundering drums banging out a tribal rhythm that builds to its cold finish. The song reminds me of what Kate Bush was trying to accomplish on her song "Sat in Your Lap" which was her answer to all the Dream Pop tracks that came before it. As humans we need to continually acknowledge our tribal origins and our heathen-like responses. In fact, considering the barren cover that looks like an apocalyptic world with its starkness and striped down tree conveniently shaped as the letter F, clearly Feist is only interested in the pursuit of the most basic human needs. And she's either trying to understand if she's connected to the human race, or if the human race is connected at all to one another in the 21st Century, where the technological achievements have done more to separate our species than bring us together.

It's been four years since the release of The Reminder and the wave of success that followed. Perhaps Feist is reacting to all the fuss and publicity and wants to avoid it all on Metals. She has stated that she took a leave of absence from music for a year before getting back into songwriting. But perhaps it was a post-traumatic stress reaction to all the attention. Remember, she's an artist who almost lost her ability to sing in the first place before cloistering herself in a room and writing the songs that made up The Reminder. Perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but I like to think that serious artists like her should have their work considered in their proper context; either in context to their previous work ,or in the context of their life and times. In Feist’s case, it’s an easy connection for us to make.

The blues is philosophically present on Metals, but no more obvious in the opening chords to "Anti-Pioneer,” a rather spare recording with a deliberately slow tempo echoing the front porch lament of the South, but with a California twist and heavy string arrangement. To me, Feist is a vocalist specifically interested in creating a sound and presentation that's geared to the track itself, as if each song is painted on a fresh pallet, rather than using many colours on the same pallet. Metals does not have many colours; mostly shades of grey but it's her use of the musical brush that makes it a success. Rather than appeal to fans of The Reminder who discovered a slightly quirky pop song stylist, Metals is a whole new creation whose thread is her unique voice.

Recorded in Big Sur, California, Metals is an album that doesn't really echo any geographic location in my opinion, but it does have a free spirit about it that has provided Feist and producers Chilly Gonzales and Mocky with an opportunity to experiment. It's an album that rewards you on repeated listening simply for the more intimate cuts such as "Comfort Me" and "Cicadas and Gulls." These are quiet, mood pieces carefully rendered with grace and beauty in their sparseness. The album concludes with the equally charming "Get it Wrong Get it Right," a kind of wink of the eye from the artist who's muse maybe is saying "Don't be afraid of balancing one's career with the demands of the music business."

Joni Mitchell often spoke about her recordings as individual, self-contained works. For Feist, who I think philosophically agrees with Mitchell's notion, Metals is as unique as The Reminder and Let It Die (2004), each expressing a different aspect of the singer. This newest work is an important musical statement from a very creative artist who appears to have fully regained her muse and created a record that has captures a maturing artist moving into the future.

John Corcelli is a musician, writer and broadcaster. He was the producer and sound designer on Kevin Courrier’s upcoming radio documentary, Dream Time: Perth County Conspiracy…Does Not Exist, that will be broadcast on CBC Radio’s Inside The Music on October 16th.

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