It seems a little weird to call Leslie Feist an elder stateswoman of anything -- she's 35, this is her fourth full-length -- but for a second, let's just say she is, and let's call her sphere of influence iRock. Before her, we had Elliott Smith and Cat Power: tormented, uncomfortably intimate, awesome, not particularly mainstream. After her came St. Vincent, A Fine Frenzy, Adele, Lykke Li, Yael Naim, and Florence and the Machine, who were frequently, unfortunately, described as "chanteuses"; they also enjoyed varying levels of success, ranging from insider critical acclaim to colossal commercial validation. With a little help from Steve Jobs and Elmo, Feist helped blur the line between indie rock and pop, DIY songstress and gussied-up diva, bedroom hush and Coachella roar.
Is any of this bad? Of course not. Breezy pop is wonderful; Grey's Anatomy is a fine show. Feist's breakout, 2007's The Reminder, remains both a very lovely album and a bellwether -- the Nevermind of iRock. The only bummer now would be if a certain elder stateswoman returned to the house she helped build (shooing away the raccoons who've since moved in) and became caught between two worlds -- the clever, confident pop she's known for and something graver, darker, more serious -- and didn't comfortably inhabit either. Indeed, that could bum a few folks out.
But that's not what happens here. The refreshing new Feist record, Metals, opens like a processional: drums thump, guitars ring out, and she belts the album's first, definitive line -- "'Speak plain,' he said." And that's before the horns arrive, the strings, the backing vocals -- it's exactly like the beginning of The Lion King (sort of). That initial thrill persists through "Graveyard," a slow-building tune featuring the album's best hook, stridently sung by a multitracked chorus of Feists: "Wooahhh / Bring them all back to life."
"Caught a Long Wind" is a smoky, understated nod to Lena Horne, "A Commotion" is a careering wink to TV on the Radio, complete with a bunch of dudes discordantly chanting in the middle. "The Undiscovered First" mines a similar vein: tempestuous, capering. Sweetly soporific jams abound here, from "Bittersweet Melodies" to the brazenly Iron & Wine-y "Cicadas and Gulls."
Taken individually, each song is as sturdy as oak -- the guitars have a magnesium shimmer, and every instrument seems bathed in its own spotlight, especially Feist's vocals, which feel like they're being whispered directly into your ear (admit it: you'd buy an album called Feist Blows Out Birthday Candles). The production is so refined the album occasionally creaks, which is not to imply it sounds old-timey, but simply that there's a craftsman's attention to detail.
And yet Metals lacks a certain cohesive magic, despite being recorded in Big Sur by Feist's usual coterie (Mocky, Chilly Gonzales). Even with its sonic detours -- the slightly nutty percussion, a lot of general yelling -- the record feels a bit monochromatic, like a just-fun-enough surrey ride whose background keeps repeating.
That's a shame. Leslie Feist herself is so wonderfully, yes, plainspoken that you really root for her, especially now that the market's saturated with chanteuses (sorry) who have clearly studied her playbook: misty crooning, light-on-your-feet phrasing. But Metals' lyrical sentiments never go for simply soothing, like this epitaph: "When you comfort me / It doesn't bring me comfort, actually." Those new voices could learn a thing or two from Feist's balance of nuance and forthrightness, even if Metals isn't the keenest example of that alchemy.