Songbirds of a feather fail together

May 6, 2007


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)
Critic's rating: 1 star

Feist, "The Reminder" (Interscope)
Critic's rating: 1 and a halfstars