One of several albums that I haven’t gotten around to reviewing, Feist’s The Reminder is quite good, and certainly a massive improvement over the decent-but-overrated Let it Die. But it’s one of those effortlessly solid but not life-changing albums that really doesn’t give me much of an entry-point for review or analysis. In fact, every time I sat down to write the review, all I wanted to talk about was Serena Ryder. After over a month, I figure I should just give up and talk about Serena Ryder instead.
Back when I worked for the Department of Transportation traveling the province during the summer, I listened to a lot of CBC radio. Given that commercial music radio is almost universally terrible here in Nova Scotia, I would spend most of my days cycling through the CBC programming schedule: Information Morning, the Current, Sounds like Canada, Maritime Noon and then into the Round-Up on the drive home.
I can’t remember if it was on Sounds like Canada or the Round-Up, but I distinctly remember the first time I heard Serena Ryder’s voice. The moment stands out because of how rare an occurrence it was. One of the pitfalls of living in the digital age is that the multitude of music available at our fingertips means that the act of random discovery is almost non-existent. You get songs recommended by friends, or by a website or blog, but you never turn on the radio and get surprised anymore.
The song in question was “Unlikely Emergency,” the title track from Ryder’s debut album produced by the wonderfully talented Hawksley Workman (this was several months before the album’s eventual release). Maybe it was the unique title that caught my ear, or the organ that opened the song like a 21st century “Whiter Shade of Pale.” But from the moment that the vocal cut in, I was head over heels. The delivery was stunning – impassioned but never melodramatic, frail but not weak, note-perfect but hardly forced. It was raw, start to finish, in that best of ways. I kept waiting for the song to cheapen out, to go for the easy flourish, but it never did. It ended as heart-wrenchingly brilliant as it began.
I remember trying to picture what this Serena Ryder woman from Millbrook, Ontario looked like. Given that her she sounded like an old soul, I figured she had to be at least pushing 40, her raspy vocals strained by years of whisky and cigarettes. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that a) she was only 21 years old, and b) she was absolutely drop-dead beautiful. I tracked down a bunch more of the tracks from her debut album, which weren’t bad, but nothing could touch “Unlikely Emergency.” A musical crush solidified from that one song alone, I waited in anticipation for her next move.
A covers album.
I couldn’t believe it – what is this, 1960 or something? The covers album is something that you do long after your career is established – it’s an absolutely miserable way to START a career. The album, If Your Memory Serves You Well, features 12 covers of Canadian songs from such iconic musicians as Leonard Cohen, the Band, and Paul Anka – not a terrible idea for an album, but a major label debut? It reeks of a label decision – some executive telling Serena that they weren’t comfortable putting out an album of her own material, but if she did a covers album first (with a built-in audience of older Canadians who know these songs), they’d let her get to her own stuff eventually. The album actually features three Ryder originals, stuck near the end of the album like a friggin’ bonus: “not only can she sing, but she can write too!” (which is almost the angle her electronic press kit video takes).
Admittedly, the album isn’t abysmally terrible – just woefully disappointing. Even moments of inspiration, like loose, laid back first single “Good Morning Starshine,” from the musical Hair, suffer because I can’t shake the fact that they’re someone else’s songs, more a marketing plan than any artistic statement. Making matters worse is the album’s production, so hideously squeaky-clean that it robs away any and all of the raw quality that made me fall in love with “Unlikely Emergency” the moment I heard it.
The original songs actually fare the worst of all, and second single “Weak in the Knees” is a textbook case. The song’s hardly a masterpiece, but it’s a sweet little ballad with a nice refrain, and when Ryder performs it live with just her and an acoustic guitar it improves immensely. But the recorded version is complete and utter schlock, glossed up with strings and organ to the point where its soul is completely stripped from it. Sure, it’s become a Top 50 radio hit in Canada for Ryder, but it makes her completely indistinguishable from any other female singer-songwriter out there, destined to be the next Melanie Doane or Kim Stockwood just waiting to be forgotten when someone else comes along with a semi-catchy track.
What does any of this have to do with Feist? Because Feist is living proof that a female singer-songwriter in this day and age doesn’t have to play by anyone else’s rules. I think that Bob Lefsetz is a bit of a wang a lot of the time, but the point he keeps driving home on his blog day after day is an important one: artists do not need mainstream attention to have a valuable and profitable career. In fact, with the record industry tanking, what artists should be aspiring to do is to build a devoted following, the kind that will tell their friends about your album and go to your shows time and time again.
Trying to please everyone creates an inoffensive product that many like but few love. In contrast, Feist has made albums that a smaller group of people love dearly and champion to others, and it’s allowed her to break through as a mainstream success (well, relatively so) in the process. But at the same time, should that mass appeal elude her in the future, she’s still got a fanbase that will allow her to keep making music profitably (creatively and financially) for years to come.
Now, maybe I’m misreading this whole situation. Maybe Ryder is doing exactly what she wants to do, and the label has nothing to do with it. Still, I’d love to have five minutes to sit down and chat with her about all this. We could talk about Feist (I’m guessing she’s a fan – who isn’t these days?) or about the creative value of cover songs. I’d want to chat about how in a narrowcast world, to abandon a devoted following to flirt with mass opportunity is to the artist’s detriment. But mostly, I’d just want to tell her how brilliant “Unlikely Emergency” is, and that I know that she has the ability to make something equally raw and honest and surprise me all over again.
Download: Serena Ryder – “Unlikely Emergency”