Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Female Artistry vs. The Marketing Buzz: A bit more on Feist, Mavis Staples and a crass aside on The Arctic Monkeys

It’s immensely pleasing to report that Feist’s ‘The Reminder’ is every bit as wonderful as the sampler I received two weeks ago suggested. Although it is stylistically scattershot, veering from luxurious pop to a languid jazzy folk not a million miles from Jolie Holland or Erin McKeown, it achieves coherence through the carefully crafted nuances of the arrangements and the compassionate emotional insight of its lyrics. Feist’s vocals are exquisite throughout – technically impressive but beautifully controlled, distinctive but naturalistic and unmannered, frequently as interesting for what they reserve as for what they express. The nearest comparison that springs to my mind is the late great Dusty Springfield, a singer consistently underrated in her lifetime, capable of handling a great variety of material, genuinely soulful and emotionally convincing. Gonzales’ piano is also a crucial ingredient, proving that he is as capable of sophisticated musicality as the outstanding novelty rap pop he produced under his own name.

It’s possible that the sequencing may be an obstacle for some listeners, with the album concluding with its most stately and atmospheric tracks. It’s precisely because of this that the album has a satisfying emotional arc though, and repeated listens draw out its subtleties and textures. If there’s an over-arching theme, it’s love and the machinations of the female heart – well-worn subjects perhaps, but Feist effortlessly invests them with new depth and feeling. In addition to the tracks I’ve already discussed, highlights include the gloriously soulful ballad ‘The Limit To Your Love’, and the vulnerable ‘Intuition’, which ponders the difficulty of knowing which relationships might be the ones that last (‘did I, did I miss out on you?’ she asks at the end, with a hint of genuine sadness and regret). ‘The Water’ and ‘Honey Honey’ are both mysterious and minimal, with Feist’s voice given plenty of space to cast its spell. These songs carry the memories of former love affairs, both unrequited and realised, and the album frequently contrasts the heady rush of young love with the changing feelings that come with age and experience. It’s a beautiful album – at once touching and mesmerising.

Showcasing these songs at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire last week, Leslie Feist also proved herself a compelling stage presence, challenging and entertaining the audience in equal measure. Gigs that consist almost entirely of unreleased material can be problematic (the Kings of Leon performance at Glastonbury 2004 seems a case in point), but this worked brilliantly, due at least in part to the quality of the material, but also ably assisted by the subtle and unusual qualities of her malleable musical ensemble.

Equally brilliant, albeit for very different reasons, is Mavis Staples’ collection of ‘freedom’ songs ‘We’ll Never Turn Back’. This is yet another career resurrection from the outstanding Anti label (also responsible for Solomon Burke’s ‘Don’t Give Up On Me’ and Bettye Lavette’s ‘I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise’). Where the Feist album is reflective, melancholy and restrained, ‘We’ll Never Turn Back’ is fierce, steadfast, gutsy and committed in restating the relevance of these songs beyond the original civil rights movement (in which The Staple Singers of course played a crucial role).

Not content with having produced his own passionate but whimsical vision of a vanished America on ‘My Name is Buddy’, Ry Cooder also lends his considerable talents to this project both as a musician and producer. This record simply sounds wonderful – keeping the gospel spirit of these songs by sticking to traditional instrumentation, but with inventive playing and dynamics that give this powerful material a fresh questing imperative. Cooder’s own contributions on guitar and mandolin are dependably crisp and powerful, but Jim Keltner’s drumming is equally significant. Nobody plays a backbeat with the degree of accuracy that Keltner commands, and he invests each of these songs with a relentless force that, as one of the songs suggests, they will not be moved. ‘Ninety Nine and a Half’ even sounds like it could be a dance track – fusing the spirit of folk, gospel and disco. Cooder’s musical backdrops are a consistent reminder of the close links between the American folk tradition, gospel, blues and soul.

Mavis’ sleevenotes show that she is keenly aware of the social injustices and divisions that still characterise modern America, and there are thinly veiled attacks on the Bush administration throughout this record. Cooder and Staples add lyrics to the traditional songs (‘This Little Light of Mine’ now states ‘ain’t gonna fight in no rich man’s war’) and Staples frequently veers out into long half-spoken, half-sung extemporised sermons. The more sceptical among us might prefer to question Staples’ reliance on the Church in this context (particularly given the evangelical commitment to Bush’s administration), but Staples states her form of Christianity boldly and explicitly (‘My God is a loving God…a merciful God’), and this music has the uplifiting and inspirational qualities of the best gospel music. There’s also real insistence to both form and rhythm here, with repetition playing a strong part in ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ and ‘Turn Me Around’.

Staples has lost some of her power and range in recent years, but in this context, her gritty, emphatic voice, with clear phrasing, sounds just right. The deeper end of her range still has a unique character too, as demonstrated clearly on the title track. This is clearly not just material with which she is familiar, but a collection of songs which can best channel her determination and spiritual commitment. Anyone with even the remotest interest in American cultural and social history should snap this up straight away, but that it also serves as a living, breathing document of America’s current predicament makes it all the more remarkable.

Of course, everyone else is rushing out for the second Arctic Monkeys album. Whilst I have no particular axe to grind against this band, the shape the reviews for this album are taking fascinates me as an example of the more cynical machinations of the music industry. The consensus seems to be that it represents a musical development from the much-lauded debut (not having heard it yet, I can't really judge this), yet it seems to have received a more measured four-star treatment than the hyperbolic five star, best British debut album nonsense heaped upon its predecessor. Paul Morley stated on Newsnight Review that 'Favourite Worst Nightmare' was 'the perfect soundtrack to the self-consciousness of the moment'. What the hell does that mean, Paul? And, yes, of course they were aware that it was their second album when they were making it. If Alex Turner is such a poetic genius, one would also expect him to be able to count. To my ears, 'Brianstorm' is a neat fusion of the limber white-boy funk of Franz Ferdinand with the taut guitar pop of The Libertines. Lyrically, it's characterised by joky rhymes and bad puns. In its observational style, it's hardly all that far removed from something like Blur's 'Charmless Man'. Nothing particularly wrong with any of that, but it's hardly an original vision.

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