Canadian-born Leslie Feist is best known for her charismatic cameos on albums by Broken Social Scene, Apostle of Hustle and Kings of Convenience. But her second solo album, Let It Die, has already gone gold in France and recently earned two Juno Awards (the Canuck equivalent of the Grammy) for best alternative album and best new artist. With major-label backing in the United States, Feist’s sensual blend of folk, pop and jazz may be poised to wake the same audience that Norah Jones put to sleep.
Let It Die stitches together so many different genres that it’s a marvel it coheres at all. Opening with the simple guitar strum of “Gatekeeper,” the album moves through sophisticated Brill-building pop (“One Evening), gospel (“Let It Die”), disco (a smoky cover of the Bee Gees’s “Love You Inside Out”) and traditional Appalachian balladry (“When I Was a Young Girl”), even taking a detour to a 1920s Paris cabaret with Blossom Dearie’s “Tout Doucement.” Disparate as these songs are, the consistent production work of Manu Chao and Feist’s ex-boyfriend Chilly Gonzales make the stylistic shifts seem less jarring. Analog keyboards, muted horns and light drumbeats color Feist’s lovelorn songs without dominating them, lending the album a spare, crepuscular feel that pervades even the more upbeat tracks.
The centerpiece of Let It Die is Feist’s seductive voice, which takes PJ Harvey’s bluesy urgency and tempers it with a detached Parisian cool. It’s not perfect for every occasion — whoever decided it was a good idea to close the album with Feist’s uncomfortable phrasing on “Now At Last” should be sent back to the mailroom. But when she wraps her pipes around the right melody, Feist is capable of magic. Just listen to her rapturous performance in the climactic middle section of “Lonely Lonely” or the slow burn of “Let It Die,” in which she turns the mundane observation “The saddest part of a broken heart/ Isn’t the ending so much as the start” into pure poetry.
With her distinctive voice, Francophilia and eclectic taste for the music of times past, Feist might be a spiritual sister to Jeff Buckley. But where Buckley was at his best when interpreting music he didn’t write, Feist has a gift for melody that makes the six self-penned songs on Let It Die stand out. On “Gatekeeper” and “One Evening,” she achieves that rare feat of writing verses that are every bit as memorable as the choruses. The domestic stability in lines like “unpacking the bags and setting up/ and planting lilacs and buttercups” are an odd match for the exuberant hook parade that is “Mushaboom.” But the song — like the entirety of Let It Die — is so good that it’s worth staying home for.