On a recent shopping Saturday, I found myself in a suburban Banana Republic, a Pine Street photo gallery, and a chichi Center City cafe. I bring this up not merely to establish my credentials as an effete poser, but because Feist was playing in all three places.
That's Leslie Feist, the Canadian indie-pop singer who goes by her last name when making her own music. (She's also a sometime member of the Toronto collective Broken Social Scene, and used to perform along with electro-rapper Peaches under the name Bitch Lap Lap and sing with the frosty Norwegian duo Kings of Convenience.)
Let It Die, Feist's excellent 2005 album, scored an adult alternative hit with the shimmying "Mushaboom." But although it was declared a personal favorite by tastemakers such as OutKast's Andre 3000, the CD had modest U.S. sales of 100,000. (Most of those buyers apparently were baristas and shopkeepers.) It certainly didn't move Feist to a Norah Jones level of cultural ubiquity.
Leave it to The Reminder (***), which comes out on Tuesday, to take care of that. Feist's fourth solo album - if you include a less-than-stellar 1999 effort Monarch (Lay Your Jewelled Head Down) and Open Season, a collection of remixes that appeared in 2006 - uses the stylish charms of Let It Die as a starting point and marks Feist's flowering as a songwriter.
Feist, 31, grew up in Saskatche- wan and Alberta, and now lives in Toronto. But Let It Die and The Reminder were written and recorded in Berlin and Paris. Her music is marked by a composed elan that recalls 1960s Euro chanteuses like Francoise Hardy and Nico. (She's one of a bevy of such au courant international sophisticates, including Charlotte Gainesbourg, the daughter of Serge, whose charming 5:55 was released in the United States last week, and Keren Ann, an Israeli-born singer who splits her time between New York and Paris. Her terrific self-titled CD comes out May 8.)
The diminutive brunette Feist is also an indie-pop sex symbol, a sort of thinking woman's counterpart to Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst (with whom she duetted on "Mushaboom" last year at the Academy of Music). It's not every guitar-strumming singer-songwriter, after all, who has the panache to pull off a cover of the Bee Gees' "Inside & Out," and also drop the name of Russian magic-realist author Mikhail Bulgakov in interviews.
Let It Die displayed Feist's nascent songwriting chops on songs like the torchy title cut, as well as a classy taste in covers, including Ron Sexsmith's "Secret Heart" and Blossom Dearie's "Tout Doucement." But The Reminder plumbs more personal territory, with greater stylistic verve.
The album is still carried by Feist's considerable skills as an understated, emotive vocalist, who wields a light, aching voice with aplomb (and multi-tracks it to haunting effect on "Honey Honey"). The arrangements are often sparse and never fussy, frequently built around a strummed acoustic guitar, before building to a sing-along, horn-happy chorus. That's the formula for "1234." In the video for that song, Feist is hoisted by a circle of scrappy-looking dancers, like a community theater version of a Busby Berkeley musical.
This time, there's only one cover, and a daring one at that, "Sea Lion Woman," a public-domain song identified most closely with Nina Simone. Feist sings the lyric over a squad of clapping, chanting backup vocalists: "Sea lion woman dressed in black, wink at the man and then stab him in his back."
In this nervy version, "Sea Lion Woman" doesn't remain a folk song for long. Soon the guitarist, who fronted a high school punk band called Placebo and wielded her six string on tour with Canadian rock band By Divine Right, is pealing off thorny lead lines and turning the song into a rocked-out rave-up.
Feist's music gets played in all those boutiques and cafes because it communicates a level measure of cool while retaining a sense of mystery. And it's catchy, too.
The Reminder isn't perfect. "Brandy Alexander," written with Sexsmith, is almost too pretty - Canadian lounge singers will be singing it till eternity. A few songs, like "Intuition," are spare to a fault. But the best songs on The Reminder, like the jittery "I Feel It All" and the foreboding romance "How the Heart Behaves," are unforgettable - reminders of what a pleasure listening to smart, seductive pop music can be.