A Tale of Two Singer-Songwriters

By Allison Stewart
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

It's hard not to feel bad for Tori Amos: At 43, she's practically got one foot in the pop cultural grave, struggling to hold on to her vanishing piece of diva real estate. Even worse, she's issued her new concept album, "American Doll Posse," on the same day singer-songwriter and media juggernaut Leslie Feist releases her giant-slaying breakthrough disc, "The Reminder."

Feist, 31, is everything Amos is not: Cool. Dispassionate. Canadian. "American Doll Posse" is a gimmicky attention grab; Feist sings as if she naturally assumes everyone is listening.

A sometime member of the famed Toronto collective Broken Social Scene and occasional cohort of Peaches, Feist combines idiosyncratic folk and torchy pop, and the novelty of the coupling makes "The Reminder" appear more momentous than it is. Like its predecessor, the equally sprightly "Let It Die," it's a wonderful slip of a thing -- a flawlessly arranged, breezily instrumented Sunday brunch album that sounds like something Norah Jones would make, if she had better connections.

Though there are burbly notes of electronica and jazz throughout, "The Reminder" retains an unforced, lo-fi feel, even during more energetic numbers like the great, galloping first single, "My Moon My Man." Follow-up single "1 2 3 4" is a riot of hand claps, horns and banjos; "The Park" is a halting, conventional guitar ballad on which Feist is accompanied, Snow White-like, by a chorus of tweeting birds.

Except for the usual love-is-hard-except-when-it-isn't musings, "The Reminder" lacks a distinctive lyrical point of view. "American Doll Posse" suffers from the opposite problem: Amos performs its 23 tracks from the perspective of five disparate female characters, all inspired by mythological archetypes. All share a fondness for bad wigs, blogging and songs about patriarchy (in a not-too-subtle bit of symbolism, one of the characters appears on the album's cover holding a rooster).

Nine albums in, Amos's characteristic nuttiness has now reached full flower: "Posse" radiates weirdness, ambition and a manic charm. It's perky and demented, and unexpectedly decent. Strip away its core conceit, dispense with about a third of its tracks (many of which are two-minute-and-under throwaways) and the remainder is standard-issue Amos. There are winking odes to sexual gamesmanship, operatic piano ballads and the administration critique "Yo George" ("You have the whole nation on all fours"), which will take its rightful place next to Norah Jones's "My Dear Country" in the Annals of Awkward Songs About the President.

"Posse" lacks any track as singularly arresting as Feist's "Sealion," the swaying clap-along that marks the unofficial midpoint of "The Reminder." A cover of an old Nina Simone song originally titled "See-Line Woman," it's a timeless affirmation of female power, precisely the sort of thing Amos herself might have done, back in the day.

DOWNLOAD THESE: Feist: "My Moon My Man," "1 2 3 4," "I Feel It All"; Amos: "Big Wheel," "Girl Disappearing"

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