You know Feist, because you know the irresistibly bouncy “1234,” featured in an Apple iPod commercial in 2007. That TV ad swept the Canadian singer-songwriter into a whirlwind of touring, publicity and album sales. When things finally settled two years later, she stepped away from music almost entirely. “Metals” is her return, and its spare, spindly songs are a reaction to and reflection on the past four years of her life. It’s also the best record she’s made.
Much the way “Undiscovered First” builds from a barely audible bass drumbeat to a stomping, shouting peak, this 12-song record perches quietly on the edges of the listener’s senses, all acoustic riffs and windswept vocals. Give them some attention (read: repeated plays) and they each reveal a dusky, finely weathered underside.
None of the chirpy, sun-flecked ditties (“Mushaboom”) you associate with Feist (first name: Leslie) are here. Instead, there are titles such as “Bittersweet Melodies,” “Graveyard,” “Get It Wrong, Get It Right” and “The Bad in Each Other,” that ponder personal security, roads not taken and the impulse for goodhearted people to do bad things. “A Commotion” sounds like Nick Cave was hired to arrange it, with a stout male chorus sharpening the tune to a shrill point.
There is still acoustic guitar and piano out front, but the gently shuffling beats that underpinned “The Reminder” are gone. Replacing them is a palpable sense of a high-ceilinged, sparsely furnished room (basic recording was done in Big Sur, Calif.), where an artist, pondering her options, sits in reflection. You have the chance to sit by the window and take it all in.
— Patrick Foster
Recommended Tracks: “The Bad in Each Other,” “Undiscovered First,” “A Commotion”
“Working in Tennessee”
Merle Haggard was made for these times. Everything he sings comes out ornery. Or woeful. “Working in Tennessee” retraces his greatest and timeliest themes: the loss of love, the passing of time, the troubles of the working man.
“Tennessee” mostly toggles between gentle Bakersfield swing and grave acoustic country. It’s easy, unforced. Haggard is well past his reactionary “Okie From Muskogee” period, or, if he isn’t, “Working in Tennessee” bears no trace of it. Its targets are obvious and unassailable: “Too Much Boogie Woogie” is a rollicking takedown of Ernest Tubb-dissing whippersnappers; “What I Hate” is a musical recounting of Haggard’s dislikes, which include racism and dishonest politicians; “Working Man Blues,” a Willie Nelson duet that’s otherwise self-explanatory, chugs along nicely.
The inclusion of covers of “Cocaine Blues” (popularized by Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison) and “Jackson,” made famous by Johnny and June Carter and re-created here by Hag and Mrs. Hag, seems to point to the inevitable Cash-ification of Haggard, 74.
For all its pleasures, the slightly unfocused “Tennessee” isn’t a great album. Hag, a great artist, hasn’t made many of those. It’s the album you make before you get the call from Rick Rubin.
In the meantime, Haggard balances a handful of great songs with a whole lot of filler, some of it perched unwisely up top: The second track, “Down on the Houseboat,” sounds like something Jimmy Buffett would make if he were poor and depressed. It’s the only song here that Hag doesn’t inhabit completely.
— Allison Stewart
Recommended Tracks: “Cocaine Blues,” “Working Man Blues”
“Kinshasa One Two”
Blur’s Damon Albarn has dipped his toes in the reunion waters but has mostly focused on increasingly eclectic and exotic sounds since that beloved band’s hiatus. He scored hits with the multimedia, genre-mashing project Gorillaz (which started as Blur began to wind down) and formed supergroup the Good, the Bad and the Queen with members of the Clash, the Verve and Tony Allen, longtime drummer for Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti. That last name shows a particular area of interest for Albarn — the sounds of Africa.
It can be seen as a surprising approach for someone who fronted arguably the most distinctly British band since the Kinks, but Albarn is committed. In 2002, he teamed with a handful of Malian musicians for “Mali Music” and this July, he and a contingent of British producers spent five days in the Democratic Republic of Congo recording with local musicians. “Kinshasa One Two” — a benefit for Oxfam, whose proceeds will aid the charity’s work in the war-torn country — is the result of those sessions, with 14 tracks that showcase a surprising sonic diversity that is bound by an unobtrusive production aesthetic and a light whir that propels each song.
“Kinshasa” does not have the narrow focus of many international compilations. “Hallo” (featuring Tout Puissant Mukalo and Nelly Liyemge) has the seductive, lilting rhythm found on some Gorillaz songs, and makes you wonder why trip-hop went in the first place. “Three Piece Sweet Part 1 & 2” (featuring Bebson) is an exercise in aggressive minimalist electro, while “African Space Anthem (A.S.A.)” (featuring Ewing Sima of Tout Puissant Mukalo) is a club-ready song that rides on bursting bass lines and chant-along vocals.
— David Malitz
Recommended Tracks: “Three Piece Sweet Part 1 & 2,” “Hallo”