Both are one-named, quirky and distinctive singers and heroines of the
underground music scene whose new albums are being greeted with raves by
critics and fans. To these ears, though, neither Bjork's "Volta" nor Feist's
"The Reminder" justify the hype, and both fail partly because the artists
are pretending to be something they're not.
On her last album, "Medulla" (2004), Bjork played to the avant-garde by
crafting a disc comprised entirely of sounds made by the human voice, though
some were electronically manipulated so much they were unrecognizable. It's
the sort of the thing that sounds like a good idea on paper -- especially in
the art-conscious pages of The New Yorker and the New York Times, which
loved it -- but there's no reason why it couldn't have worked, if the
Icelandic singer had crafted the sort of songs that characterize her
strongest solo albums.
Whether it's been playing with the jagged digital rhythms of electronica
or jumping between wildly diverse and unexpected genres, experimentation has
been a characteristic of the 41-year-old Bjork Guomundsdottir's music since
she struck out on her own after the end of proto-alternative-rockers the
Sugarcubes. But at her best, from the aptly named "Debut" (1992) through "Homogenic"
(1997), the arty tinkering was always employed in the service of making
accessible songs even more memorable and intriguing. Witness "Human
Behaviour," "Big Time Sensuality," "Army of Me," "Bachelorette" and the
unlikely show tune, "It's Oh So Quiet."
Listening a 'joyless chore'
While there are a lot of disorienting electronic bleeps and burbles,
intentionally atonal or harsh-sounding vocal lines and jarring computer
rhythms, there is nothing on "Volta" half as appealing as any of those
songs. Like a ponderous, four-hour, subtitled art-house film or a
pretentious "gallery installation" of abstract multi-media art, listening is
a joyless chore, but many may be reluctant to admit it because they think
it's supposed to be good for them, or they don't want to sound ignorant by
saying they just don't get it.
The disc's nadirs are two duets with Antony Hegarty of Antony and the
Johnsons ("Dull Flame of Desire" and "My Juvenile"), who sounds more like a
woman than Bjork, though the much-vaunted collaborations with super producer
Timbaland ("Earth Intruders," "Innocence" and "Hope") are hardly much
better, especially given the latter's unfortunate equivocating on the evils
of terrorism. "What's the lesser of two evils? / If a suicide bomber made
to look pregnant / Manages to kill her target or not?" Bjork asks. "If
she kills them or dies in vain? / Nature has fixed no limits on our hopes."
Elsewhere, we are treated to Chinese pipa (a form of lute), African
percussion and ostentatious trumpets (credited to a "Facilitator of
Conceptual Brass Ideas"). But we still don't get any hooks. As when the
singer wore her infamous "swan dress" to the 2001 Oscars, you got to wonder
what Bjork was thinking, or why she's trying so hard to seem even weirder
than she is. And you've got to hope she finds the plot again soon.
Feist moves to the middle
In contrast, 31-year-old, Calgary-born singer and songwriter Leslie Feist is
much more of an avant-underground prankster than you'd know just from
listening to "The Reminder" or its predecessor, "Let It Die" (2004), which
became an unexpected indie hit, selling 400,000 copies worldwide on the
strength of the easy-listening hit, "Mushaboom."
Before reinventing herself as a breathy-voiced acoustic crooner perfect
for coffeehouses too hip to play something as passe as Sade, who's
infinitely cooler on every level, Feist did time as a punk-rocker,
participated in the Canadian supergroup Broken Social Scene, and danced and
manipulated a sock puppet onstage while her friend and former roommate
Peaches did her provocative, potty-mouthed electroclash thing. (Feist called
herself Bitch Lap Lap for those gigs.)
Maybe knowing about all the time Feist spent underground makes me
especially suspect of her move to the middle of the road with a solo career
that tries to imagine Nina Simone (who receives homage via the new album's
one cover) singing Burt Bacharach songs rejected by Dionne Warwick. But
knowing that "The Reminder" was recorded in a 200-year-old manor house
outside Paris doesn't help, nor do the comments of producer Jason Charles
Beck, better known as fellow Peaches sidekick Gonzales.
You've heard it all before
"Feist comes from an indie-rock world, where it's sacrilege to admit any
kind of ambition," Beck/Gonzales told the New York Times. "But I had 100
percent in my mind the idea that we should have as much material as possible
that could be played on the radio or resonate with a huge bunch of people."
So is "The Reminder" a subversive art project designed to infiltrate the
mainstream, or are Feist and Gonzales just two more poor Bohemians eager to
sell out now that somebody's buying? It really doesn't matter, because
regardless of the genre of sweet-tooth hit they're trying to craft -- bossa
nova ("So Sorry"), country-rock ("1234"), piano ballad ("The Limit to Your
Love"), soul ("My Moon My Man") or jazzy shuffle (pretty much everything
else) -- Feist's affected cooing isn't strong enough to sustain your
interest for long, and you always have the nagging feeling you've heard the
song before and done better. Which makes her album better than Bjork's, but
only by a swan feather.
Bjork performs a sold-out show at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E.
Congress Parkway, at 8 p.m. Saturday. Feist performs at the Vic Theatre,
3145 N. Sheffield, at 7:30 p.m. on June 19. Tickets are $25 through the Vic
box office, (773) 472-0449.
Bjork, "Volta" (Elektra)
Feist, "The Reminder" (Interscope)