An Ethnomusicological Study of Feist’s Let It Die

Canadian singer-songwriter Feist’s monumental second album, Let It Die came out all the way back in 2004. So why am I all of a sudden offering a perspective on it? Good question. I have no idea. Long car rides often provoke more attentive re-listens, I suppose.

Upon first listen, Let It Die has this deeply seductive bossa nova-style pacing, with nods to jazz, folk, and even disco blended seamlessly with indie-pop songwriting. This makes sense. These songs were recorded in Paris, France and with a collective of musicians that straddle all kinds of musical spheres.

Of course, Paris is an epicenter for musical cultures from all over the world, and is a place where artists from North America have historically gone for inspiration and to launch careers. But it goes so, so much deeper than that. Half of the songs here are either traditional rearrangements or covers. Leslie Feist seems both willing and equipped to borrow and resculpt other artists’ sounds into her own voice, and I stand behind the opinion that this talent is what makes Let It Die an instant classic [1].

It reads like a hymnal shot forward in time by a 20th century pop canon.

Let’s take a look at the title track, “Let It Die”, an original tune that makes use of a very funerary and solemn organ progression. We hear hints of gospel, as Feist begins to croon above a chorus of female voices, harps, and bells. Although the song is not traditional, it reads like a hymnal shot forward in time by a 20th century pop canon. Towards the end, trombone and saxophone chords swell in, recalling Thelonious Monk’s horn-only version of “Abide With Me” (1954)—another hymnal which was not only originally written for organ, but moreover the 1847 poem on which it was based references peacefully dying, paralleling Feist’s lyrical acceptance of a a dying relationship.

The production styles on “Inside And Out”, “One Evening”, and “Leisure Suite” borrow heavily from disco. Synthesizers bounce and stab in a groove that Feist very softly and breathily sings over, recalling Donna Summer and Olivia Newton John. “Inside and Out” is a cover of The Bee Gee’s hit single “Love You Inside Out”.

“Leisure Suite” is a soft groove, not necessarily danceable, but addictively sway-able. Part of that comes from the samba-style rhythms of the finger snapping. Snaps appear on the 2nd and 4th beats of the 4/4 measure, and are swung off the tail of the 3rd beat, creating an alternative polyrhythmic groove current to the one created by the organ. But then why doesn’t the song feel more inherently Brazilian? It’s Feist’s instrumentation of organ, horns, bass, synthesizers and drum machine that signal to the listener—this is a disco track. And even those samba-evoking finger snaps are put through a pretty wet reverb, mimicking a vintage snare rim-shot.

We come eventually to the traditional ballad “When I Was A Young Girl”, rearranged and sung in a style that references American folk singer Texas Gladden. Yet the song also incorporates elements from zydeco, a musical genre that comes from the French Creole tradition of southwestern Louisiana. Both the distorted electric guitar parroting the vocal melody, and the washboard rhythmic pulses are clear references to zydeco. Feist seems to be balancing the various sides of her dual American-Eastern Canadian upbringing—the Acadians of Eastern Canada sharing the same diasporic origins as the Cajun South.

The song incorporates elements from zydeco—a musical genre from the French Creole tradition of southwestern Louisiana.

The first single off Let It Die is called “Mushaboom”. It’s a reference to the name of a village in Nova Scotia, while at the same time cleverly playing with the typical American doo-wop refrain “Sh-boom”, when a male vocalist repeats it behind the chorus over and over again. Feist continues to borrow musical traditions from elsewhere, registering them through her own very personal lyrics and compositional style.

Wait a minute, but what about all that French stuff? Interestingly, the original release of Let It Die features a cover of Françoise Hardy’s “L’amour ne dure pas toujours” (1962) but when the album was reissued in the US/UK by Interscope Records, Feist swapped it out for another French ballad “Tout Doucement” (1957) sung by Blossom Dearie. Now what’s absolutely amazing about this switch is that Dearie is actually American, but until the late 1950s she was only really known in France. That song, sung in French, is surrounded almost entirely by English songs on Dearie’s first solo album. Its well-known that Hardy, on the other hand, was deeply influenced by the Anglophone singers of her day as well as the French chanson stars.

Its clear here that Feist is aligning herself with a certain type of artist, one inevitably straddling a few confused musical worlds and battling a multi-faced identity with finding one’s unique voice. Feist’s security amongst all this confusion is absolutely unflinching, and Let It Die comes across as both eclectic in inspiration and singular in execution. I repeat… Instant Classic.

Like Dearie and Monk, Canadian songwriter Chilly Gonzales, who contributed his writing and keyboards to the album, also spent time in Paris living and performing. As if it wasn’t already starting to show as a clear theme, Feist ends her album with a standard, “Now At Last” (1956) written by Bob Haymes and sung, again, by Blossom Dearie. Haymes himself was born to an Irish-American mother and Argentinian father and spent most of his early life in where else? Paris.

[1] (from Wikipedia) Let It Die “was nominated for three Juno Awards in 2005, and won two: Best Alternative Album and Best New Artist. A track from the album, “Inside and Out”, was nominated as Single of the Year in the 2006 Juno Awards. In 2012, NOW Magazine ranked Let It Die at #4 on list of The 50 Best Toronto Albums Ever.”

[2] Images from this post are care of the Artist and Arts & Crafts Productions.

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