“The Little Engine that Could,” as we all know, tells the story of a small switch engine that volunteers to haul a heftier train over a mountain. This engine is not equipped for the journey, wanting in size and strength and speed, but what it lacks in those areas, it more than makes up for in willpower. And at the end of the day, so the allegory tells us, that is all that matters. For as the Little Engine successfully scales that once-daunting mountain, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can” becomes, “I knew I could, I knew I could, I knew I could.”
Leslie Feist is like the Little Engine that Could. They each appear feeble — her through her heartbroken pang, him through his vulnerable metal frame. They both chug on relentlessly, puffing and hissing and crawling along at a mind-numbing snail’s pace. They are both unflinching in their persistence, trying time and time again to get over that mountain. But despite these similarities, there is one glaring difference between the Little Engine and Feist — he could, she can’t.
On her latest album “The Reminder,” Feist serves up 50 minutes of sweet melodies and casual instrumentation, but little else. Her soft soprano remains cautious, with syncopated vocals lightly billowing, bopping and bouncing over piano and the crash of cymbals. There is little to no differentiation among the 13 tracks that comprise “The Reminder,” which, unsurprisingly, amounts to too much of the same, restrained sound. Yes, she’s quite persistent, but unfortunately the album lacks that extra push needed to get the train over the mountain.
As the title suggests, “The Reminder” is composed of a number of songs of Feist talking about her own past, and yet again, she’s hindered by superficiality. Sure, there’s an extremely tensile border between confiding and melodramatic, touching and trite, so maybe her ability to sing about lost love and failed romance without falling helplessly into pathetic and whiny territory is laudable. Nevertheless, for an album to indulge in and be restricted to personal memory, something must dig deep and explore beneath the surface of feeling and emotion for it to be the least bit interesting.
Regrettably, Feist can’t deliver. On “I Feel It All,” she croons, “I know more than I knew before / I didn’t rest I didn’t stop / Did we fight or did we talk.” Even worse, “The Limit To Your Love” features the lyrics, “I love I love I love / This dream of going upstream / I love I love I love / The trouble that you give me.” Please, Feist, give us some more material to chew on.
Now for the good tracks, those that push the Feist caboose toward the mountain’s peak, even if she’s not able to ultimately fight her way to the top. “My Moon My Man” is the best of the album’s more jazzy set, featuring a sweetly rollicking twang and her equally sweet octave-jumping vocals. Of the languid numbers, the album closer “How My Heart Behaves” achieves a rich and textured melancholy. Channeling Joanna Newsom’s delicate harp and vocal chord progression throughout the chorus, Feist enlists the help of a milky tenor to add some much needed harmonization to the album’s otherwise streamlined vocals.
It’s not that Feist sounds detached or insincere on “The Reminder,” but all 13 songs are so close in style — either swanky lounge act or mournful ballad — and subject — love, rejection, missed opportunity, the usual — that the album is a bit boring. She has a beautiful ringing voice that rides easily and elegantly over whatever subtle instrumentals she has chosen for the background, so she never sounds bad, but the album is too much to take in one dose. “The Reminder” may not get Feist over the mountain, but most songs, if taken alone, are a solid chug in the right direction.