No Surf Music


The No Surf Review


The Lowdown:


Based In:
Toronto, ON, Canada




Release Date:
October 4, 2011


Previous Releases:
Monarch (Lay Your Jewelled Head Down) (1999), Let It Die (2004), The Reminder (2007)

Folk rock, indie rock

Feist, Metals album cover

Rating: 8 out of 10



October 6, 2011


Feist: Metals

by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad


"1234" fit in well on Sesame Street (and with those possessing Sesame Street-style top 40 tastes), but Feist’s new album is far more complex than her previous release.

Canadian indie rock icon Leslie Feist, whose monosyllabic surname alone has become her trademark, first gained prominence thanks to an irrepressibly catchy single and perfectly choreographed video that made its way into an Apple commercial. But while “1234” and several of the other songs on her hit album The Reminder were relatively poppy in nature, this hasn’t been her norm. On both her solo debut Monarch (Lay Your Jeweled Head Down) and the critically acclaimed Let It Die, Feist often focused more on dreamy mood music than toe-tapping, radio-worthy hooks, even as she skillfully blended traditional rock roots with more modern electronic styling. For her fourth studio album, Metals—recorded in Big Sur, California with a five-person ensemble of long-time collaborators—Feist has again returned to her old ways, even taking her style further down the path of the musical vision quest, to something that might best be described as mystical.

There are no poppy MTV hits here. Compared to her last album, Metals is far more complex, like the floral bouquets of a fine wine (do people really talk like that?) vs. the cheap, simple swig of a Yuengling (it’s the craze here in Ohio right now since it’s finally made its way west from PA, although frankly I don’t know why, since Great Lakes is still a thousand times better). This has its advantages and its disadvantages.  If all you like (or know) of Feist is “1234,” then this album will probably be an unwelcome change of course. If, however, you are a fan of Let It Die, then you will find Metals to be an admirable extension of her past work.  It is an album that is perhaps greater in its artistic quality than its listenability, although several of its tracks are of high enough stand-alone interest to merit inclusion in your “best of indie rock” playlist. As a whole, the album can’t help but take the listener on a mental journey past the conscious mind, entrancing him and putting him in touch with something deeper, a part of his psyche at once more ethereal and more tangible. It’s probably not the best album to play while throwing a party or driving cross-country, but it could be great for a late evening meditative decompression.

The album’s leadoff track, “The Bad in Each Other,” both sets the tone for that which is to come, and goes against it, acting as a more rock-based transition from the last album to this one. It opens with powerful drumbeat that is then complimented by piano and a deep electric fuzz. The song depends on the driving percussion to keep it going, and between choruses spins itself into a trance-inducing, almost cosmic rhythm. When the horns kick in, signifying the start of the chorus, it’s as if the listener is suddenly shot back to Earth, only to be thrust again into the heights as the beat builds anew. Feist herself describes the mood this way: “The percussion is very elemental and really simple, but giant, a bit like an avalanche… the rocks are rolling down the mountain towards you.”

The song is a heavy meditation on failing relationships, with Feist ruminating on the reasons that even two good people just can’t get it together. That back-to-sea-level chorus—sung with fellow Canadian Bryan Webb of the band Constantines—sums up the conundrum:

And a good man, and a good woman
Can't find the good in each other.
And a good man, and a good woman
Will bring out the worst in the other,
The bad in each other.

The song provides a strong opening to the album, and certainly a mesmerizing one, opening the door for what follows.

A song that Feist describes as an “epic avalanche” and her “attempt at filmmaking” in that it is her “most visual song,” the track “Undiscovered First” battles with “The Bad in Each Other” for the title of best song on the album, and probably comes out on top. Something of a cross between the blues and an Akron/Family-style psychedelic mock Native American chant, it is undoubtedly a powerful song. Its hallmarks are a fuzzy, slow-handed guitar, muted brass, rhythmic, snake-rattling tambourine, and vocals that fluctuate between soft and cool and mantra-like intonations.

The song is a complex, metaphorical allegory about a spiritual/intellectual journey, the climbing to the top of the mountain to seek wisdom from the oracle and the inevitable fall that results from realizing that there are no answers to be found there. The last lines of the song—sung first in an enchanting three-part harmony, as if the Sphinx’s riddle summation of a Greek chorus—are a series of unanswerable questions, proof that the more wisdom one gains, the more life leaves unanswered:

Apparently Feist's designer was going for a harvest theme with this room's color scheme, perhaps realizing the album was slated for an autumn release. Either that or Canadian style is as weird as their culture. Your guess is as good as mine.

Is this the right mountain
For us to climb?

Is this the way to live
For you to me mine?

Is this the right river
For us to ford?

Is this the way to live
For me to be yours?

Is this the way to live
For me to be yours?

Is this the way to live?
Is it wrong to want more?

Finally, with the journey, the mountain, and the world lying in shattered ruins, it is Feist’s ghostly, thin, echoing voice alone that repeats the final meditation:

Is this the way to live
For me to be yours?

Is this the way to live?
Is it wrong to want more?

With a much more driving, hard-edged feel than the other tracks on the album, Feist describes “A Commotion” as “the sword hand of grudges… the moment when you’re standing up and saying, ‘This is so wrong.’” Filled with incessant strings, popping horns, and shouted staccato punches, the song is, in many ways, exactly as the title suggests, yet it is like a perfectly choreographed fight, chaos so natural that the underlying order only adds to the feeling of immediacy. It’s a structured storm that pushes with purposeful direction more than it whips around heedlessly, its quickly varying moods perfectly designed to draw the listener down the emotional path that the artist has laid out. Perhaps the most emotionally affecting track on the album, it is also among the best.

See, now that's rockstar style, a sure sign that this is a Reminder-era photo.

“The Circle Married the Line” is a particularly hard track to deconstruct lyrically because the verses are delivered in a fast-paced, syncopated style often undercut by the instrumentation. Despite this, it’s worth the effort. What is clear is that the song is about a search for meaning in life and the need for personal understanding:

I know we don’t need to go from good to worse.
Living in the past begins the ending first.
All I want is a horizon line.
Get some clarity following signs.
I could poem a path that leads up to a clearing,
Get some distance, while the words come in, so near in,
Then I’ll head out to horizon lines,
Get some clarity oceanside.

Ok, that’s the best I can make them out. Is “poem” correct? Maybe or maybe not. (No one on the all-powerful internets even seems to want to hazard a guess.) It doesn’t seem to make literal sense, but then few good lyrics do. It could be “follow” or “find,” or even “palm,” which is what it really sounds like at first blanch (there’s definitely a “p” there to form some alliteration). The point is that the literal lyrics could be almost anything; it’s the emotional impact that’s important on this song.

Now, maybe this is just because like all of us I spent far too much of my youth having droll English teachers working to convince me that when the author said “The sky was blue” he was really sending a coded message about his state of mind, his place in modern society and his relationship with the all-seeing, all-knowing Godhead, rather than simply stating a chromatic fact, but it seems that the title phrase of the song really is something of an extended metaphor. It is both a geometric allusion to the horizon line meeting the earth, and also more spiritually a symbol of personal completeness.

Much like the whole of the album, this song definitely takes some time to sink in, but regardless of the exact interpretation it is a well-executed work, highlighted by light plucked strings dancing over deeper bowed lines and a complex series of musical phrases that build into a powerful, climactic ending.

Based at first on a naked electric guitar, “Comfort Me” builds into a drum-pounding, chanted-vocal piece that might best be characterized as a slow frenzy. Feist herself describes it as “an unclear female version of ‘We Will Rock You,’” which I guess is one way you could say it.  Again it is a mood piece, more about the state of mind it puts one in than the exact meaning of the lyrics, which are a series of circuital word plays (some of which could double as SAT analogies) and onomatopoetic rhythms:

When you comfort me
It doesn't bring me comfort actually,
When you comfort me.

True life in haiku,
It balances the phrase out of the blue.
The meaning's shown to you.

What does sadness see?
The mirror has a mirror in his teeth,
That's what sadness sees.

Big sky, tiny bird
And when the paragraph betrays the word,
Big sky, tiny bird

Hoo-hoo hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo
Hoo-hoo hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo

With an intermittent bass line driving on beneath lightly touched piano, the album’s first single, “How Come You Never Go There,” has a bit of a soul-singer feel to it, focused by whoa-whoaing background vocals. Originally written as an acoustic piece to be performed solo, the version that eventually made the album was improvised by the band on the spot only their second time through the piece. Again, I prove that I do not have the mind of an A&R man, as I would have easily chosen any of the songs described above as a single first, but the song is certainly not without merit. An official video has yet to be released, but Feist has provided this track for free listening in several venues.

“Graveyard” is not so much about the place itself, although the vivid imagery that opens the song certainly paints a picture worthy of any gothic artist:

The graveyard, the graveyard all full of light.
The only age, the beating heart is empty of life.
Dirt and grass, a shadow heart. The moon sails past.
Blood as ice is an empty crisis, lonely it lies.

Rather than being a Halloweenish cartoon, however, the song focuses on the “entangled thoughts” of a person visiting such a place. “Grief comes in the form of much larger, cold-fact thoughts,” she explains. “You don’t think in specifics as much…”

This is highlighted by the repetitious chorus, sung at first alone, then in a resounding, climactic chorus to close the track:

Whoa-ah-ah-ah ah-ah, bring 'em all back to life.
Whoa-ah-ah-ah ah-ah, bring 'em all back to life.
Whoa-ah-ah-ah ah-ah, bring 'em all back to life.
Whoa-ah-ah-ah ah-ah, bring 'em all back to life.

Leslie Feist: yeah, she's cute too. You wanna make something of it?

It is a fittingly dreamy song, perfectly in tune both with the rest of the album and with the melancholic, pensive topic. Although the choruses are juxtapositionally bright, yet despite the presence of brass and Feist’s rich, high-octave vocals several sections of the piece remain befittingly spooky.

“Anti-Pioneer” is actually the oldest song on the album, written sometime between the releases of Monarch and Let It Die. Feist says she tried to record it for each of her previous albums but it didn’t seem to belong. There’s no doubt that the song fits better with the mood of Metals than any of the others. It’s slow and dreamy, almost at times like a jazz number with an electric bass sitting in. The horns and strings, the sharp snares and sad, bluesy guitar fight for the soul of the song, while Feist’s sleek but moody voice slinks through the spaces they leave between.

For the album closer, “Get It Wrong, Get It Right,” Feist takes the ambient feel to eleven, with wind-chime percussion underneath a slow-beat piano-and-guitar processional and repetitious lyrics that seem as if they might have come straight out of a dream.

In the final analysis, this is a very interesting, highly artistic album. While none of the tracks on their own are knockouts, the work as a whole is a complex sonic journey that pulls the listener through differing emotional phases as adeptly as any in recent memory. If you’re looking for poppy hits a la “1234,” they are not here. But if you’re looking for music that stimulates the mind and moves the heart, Metals is an album well worth exploring, and well worth playing again and again.


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mp3 cd vinyl


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