Perhaps because Leslie Feist (raised in Calgary, Alberta but based in Toronto by way of Paris) grew up singing in choirs, she never grabs for the spotlight — but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t belong there. More anti-diva than classic chanteuse, Feist uses her dynamic alto to glide between musical styles, blending her leading role with a spirited, almost friendly, aesthetic and giving her songs, be they covers or originals, such innovative arrangements that her best work avoids formulaic pitfalls. While she is thought of as a solo performer, Feist collaborates on nearly every song she releases, using a growing circle of friends to make her records and covering a wide range of artists. She is also quick to lend a hand. After a three-year stint as rhythm guitarist for middling but enduring Canadian rockers By Divine Right, Feist toured with former roommate Peaches as a performance artist under the moniker “Bitch Lap Lap.” She also contributed guest vocals to Peaches’ The Teaches of Peaches and Impeach My Bush. Feist has toured and recorded with Broken Social Scene since its inception. She is on such BSS solo projects as Kevin Drew’s Spirit If, Jason Collett’s Idols of Exile and Apostle of Hustle’s Folkloric Feel, as well as Navy Brown Blues by Mocky (who co-produced The Reminder) and Riot on an Empty Street by Norway’s Kings of Convenience.
While still in high school in Calgary, Feist joined the all-girl band Placebo in 1991. The band’s only full-length souvenir, Don’t Drink the Bathwater, takes far too many cues from third-rate metal. The songs are loud but gritless, and none of them are memorable. One good thing came from her time in Placebo: when Feist lost her voice after incessant touring, she learned to play guitar.
With that knowledge (and a government grant), Feist made the juvenile Monarch Lay Your Jeweled Head Down and sold copies of it on tour. If there are any strong ideas, they’re poorly executed (“It’s Cool to Love Your Family”). Despite some worthy melodies, the recordings are trite and uncontrolled (“One Year A.D.,” “Still True”). Only “Flight 303,” with crisp vocals rising over a distinct blend of guitar and percussion, suggests real promise. After that, she joined By Divine Right and didn’t record again for half a decade.
Let It Die, made in France with producers Gonzales and Renaud Letang, begins with “Gatekeeper,” a virtual distillation of Astrud Gilberto and Sade. Feist exudes a guileless combination of innocence and sexuality (“One Evening,” “Inside and Out”). The unforgettable “Mushaboom” balances simplicity (hand claps, a two-note bass line) and lush, emotive vocals. She includes covers of songs by the Bee Gees and Ron Sexsmith, as well as the traditional “When I was a Young Girl,” which Feist molds into a convincing (if false) autobiography.
Open Season: Remixes and Collabs offers “Mushaboom” remixes by Mocky, Postal Service, k-os and VV (i.e., Gonzales and Letang) and other reworkings of songs from Let It Die, so it’s not teeming with new material. While the remixes are for diehards only, the collaborations are worth hearing. Feist and Gonzales cover Peaches’ “Lovertits,” which leaps out from its surroundings; the disc also includes appealing renditions of “Snow Lion” from Readymade FC’s Babilonia (2005) and “The Simple Story,” from Jane Birkin’s Rendez-Vous (2004).
Feist recorded The Reminder in a French manor house with Gonzales, Jamie Lidell, Mocky and her touring band. From the upbeat (“I Feel It All,” “Sealion”) to the plaintive (“The Water,” “Intuition”) to the insidiously catchy (“1234”), Feist offers diversity and charm. She executes each song like a grown-up, sometimes coming perilously close to sounding tailor-made for Adult Contemporary radio (“Brandy Alexander,” the closing “How My Heart Behaves”). “1234,” which Feist co-wrote with Australian singer Sally Seltmann (aka New Buffalo), became a US hit.