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Feist - The Reminder

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Artist: Feist

Album: The Reminder

Label: Interscope

Review date: May. 25, 2007

Just as technology has changed the way political campaigns are run and the way news is received, technology has changed indie rock, too. Cheaper, better recording gear; the advent of a more level playing field through the spread of downloading; and increased interest in indie-rock in general have all led to increasingly professional-sounding indie albums. It is now commonplace for bands to create layered, dense recordings featuring banjos, horns and string quartets, with sound quality that rivals that of major labels.

I have seen startlingly little commentary on whether or not these changes are good for the music, and maybe that's because, on a very obvious level, indie music now is clearly far better than it was a decade or so ago. Check out an indie classic from around 1990 - Sebadoh's III, say, or Nirvana's Bleach - and if you weren't there in the first place, you may have trouble understanding what the fuss was about. These records and thousands of others from the same era featured terrible production, sloppy playing, awkward songwriting, and lyrics that were either laughably self-absorbed or downright inane.

Albums with those features still exist, of course, but they rarely attract notice. Big indie artists now tend to be skilled professional musicians, not willful amateurs, and they tend to have the money, time and technology to make much more detailed music. Even someone like Ariel Pink is just the exception that proves the rule - Pink may eschew professionalism and high-fidelity sound, but his particular brand of amateurism is about twenty times as skillful and ambitious as Sebadoh's was.

But that's only the most obvious level. The less obvious effect that technology is having on indie rock is that the punk spirit of so much '80s and '90s indie is just about gone from many of the biggest records. You can now buy the Shins' latest album at Starbucks. And when I hear the Shins, or Death Cab for Cutie, I mostly hear a very beautiful-sounding brand of bougie, thirtysomething myopia. Even when the Shins' lyrics drip with bitterness, and even when Ben Gibbard sings about his estrangement from the church, the underlying message is that everything is okay, or at least that everything is okay beyond the world of the narrators' personal lives. Their music is perfect, professional, and Starbucks-friendly. As much as I enjoy many aspects of both bands' music, there is something wrong with this picture.

It may seem absurd to mention Sebadoh's III in a review of The Reminder, which was released on a major label and features an opener ("So Sorry") that could easily be mistaken for Norah Jones. And, after all, Leslie Feist has received a huge career boost from NPR. So why not just acknolwedge that it's Adult Alternative fodder and let it be?

But it's not that easy. Feist has played in Broken Social Scene and received adoring press from Pitchfork and a prime spot on Dusted's radio charts. She's an indie darling.

Not all of The Reminder sounds like Norah Jones, of course, and the songs in which it doesn't are where much of the interest lies. Feist, instead, often makes low-key, poppy indie-rock that features deft, diverse arrangements and Feist's rich, vibrato-heavy voice. There's a lot to like about a number of these songs, particularly the single "1234," which is both bluesy and buoyant, and features a lovely, trumpet-led ending. "I Feel It All" and "My Moon My Man" are groovy and spare, and the bizarre, jazzy vocal harmonies on the latter are a nice touch.

Even on these tracks, though, there's a sense of easiness - they're as comfortable as a well-worn couch. Some people might think that's a good thing, but personally, I hear a bunch of professional musicians trying to entertain, and succeeding. That's all. Are these songs good? Yes, they are. Of course they are. But they're good in such a way that it's almost senseless to wonder whether they are or not.

A couple of slower tracks in the middle of the album, "The Park" and "The Water," break from the pattern a little bit, as you can hear Feist's lovely voice straining at the edge of its capabilities - it actually cracks a little at the end of "The Park." But the general impression is that there's no sense of mystery, and that what you see is what you get. (Which may seem like an odd thing to say about an artist whose calling card is her mysterious voice, but it's nonetheless true.)

So, to return to the opening question: is the influx of money, talent and hi-fi recording gear into indie rock a good thing? It depends on who's involved. When an artist has access to all three, the results can be devastating. Think, for example, of Joanna Newsom's stunning Ys, which featured extremely long songs that didn't follow verse-chorus structure, impossibly detailed and fantastical lyrics, and an impeccably-arranged orchestra circling chromatically in the background.

Obviously, this isn't to say that everyone should be recording 17-minute songs that reference meadowlarks and meteorites, only that great art is never satisfied. It pushes at things. It struggles. It makes messes. As silly as some of those Sebadoh songs sound today, at least those guys knew how to make messes. And at least their first several albums featured an audible struggle between man and (4-track) machine. And sure, a lot of those old SST records sound terrible now, but at least most of those artists were audibly pushing toward something that was different and a little bit difficult. They had to. Amateurism and lo-fidelity forced them to.

Today, those obstacles have disappeared for some artists, and what artists should try to do in response is push themselves until they find other obstacles somewhere else. The Reminder doesn't do that, and the result is an album that's good in about the same way a banker or advertising executive might be "good" at his or her job.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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