Feist’s Earthen ‘Metals’

Courtesy of Cherrytree Records

Leslie Feist is complex. Though she’s most well-known for churning out pop hits like “1234” off her last album, 2007’s “The Reminder,” as well as “Mushaboom” off 2004’s “Let It Die,” these bright and happy singles are only a speck on the musical canvas of Feist’s career. Before she was dancing around and performing on “the Colbert Report,” she was in a punk band and was part of Broken Social Scene and several others.

More than her career, though, her sound represents a huge array of tonal possibilities, from the aforementioned pop tunes to much more heavy ballads (“Brandy Alexander,” “Let It Die”), jazzy live renditions of her songs (“Gatekeeper”) and the occasional primitive, beat-driven oddity (“Sealion,” “When I Was a Young Girl”).

With her latest release, “Metals,” she seems to do away with the brightly lit tracks and focus more on developing more low-key and earthy songs. Like the cover art and the title of the album suggest, Feist’s approach to this album sounds more based in nature than any of her previous work. “Metals” doesn’t denote the skeletal structure of the skyscraper-laden cityscapes around us, but rather those raw materials that are found underground.

“The Bad In Each Other” starts off the album dynamically, though much different than her previous albums. “The Reminder” and “Let It Die” both started off with ballads, and the change in album dynamic is noticeable. Though much different than what she has put out in the past, the new formula works. “Bad” kicks off the album in solidity rather than softness — a welcome shift from the gentle push-offs of Feist’s past albums.

As a whole, “Metals” aims to ground the listener in a similar fashion to its premiere track. “How Come You Never Go There” is syncopated, almost bluesy. Slower and more start-and-stop, “Anti-Pioneer” takes the same sentiment and turns it into a drawling ballad.

“Bittersweet Melodies” offers soulfulness reminiscent of “Brandy Alexander,” delving into the style of old piano ballads from the ’70s without ever becoming stale or derivative. In a different way, the barren “Cicadas and Gulls” offers a simple, unadorned acoustic track that sounds like it could have been written and recorded impromptu in a cabin on the Lake Isle Innisfree.

If anything were to be regarded as the standout catchiest track, it’d be “The Circle Married the Line,” though it wouldn’t be fair to call it a pop tune. With subtle strings and orchestral elements to juxtapose the prudent, sparing acoustic guitar back track present through most of the album, “Married” stands out but doesn’t threaten to take the reins from the rest of the album.

What’s surprising (though not in a bad way!) about “Metals” is its apparent lack of the single. Each track on its own stands strongly and represents something, and the album works together as a whole. But nowhere to be found is a song like “1234” or “Mushaboom,” no song that promises to show up ad nauseam on pop radio stations.

Instead, what Feist has presented to us actually seems to directly contradict her commercial success  — possibly a symbolic and purposeful move out of the limelight. Though she’s quite capable of playing the Top 200 game, “Metals” sends the message that Feist is going to make the music that Feist wants to make. This critic respects that.

Most of the album represents this kind of poetic retreat from civilization and into a backwoods sense of freedom, and though the LP is strong in its elemental courage, it is not completely immune to its own pathological escapism. “A Commotion” comes off as both rushed and overdone; between the harsh, barbaric and almost ritualistic shouting in the background and the staccato string arrangement, the track is a flash flood among otherwise calmer waters.

“Metals” certainly has its moments of earthy, grounded brilliance, never becoming too muted or dulled because of the lowness of the record as a whole. Though not catchy, the album only really suffers in being the least accessible of any of Feist’s material.

Listeners who really loved the bright sweetness of her past work may thus find “Metals” slightly off-balance and wooden upon first listen. Anyone who lets the album bloom, though, will delight in its complexity. Feist’s saccharine sentiments are still present, just hidden under an unrefined, smoky mask of molasses tones.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5