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Let’s get one thing out of the way: Leslie Feist can’t sing. Sure, she’s got a nice enough voice. But like Astrud Gilberto, Tracey Thorn, and whichever Stereolabist you like best, she’s had to learn to wring poignancy from her instrument’s limitations. Unsurprisingly, the Broken Social Scene member’s second solo album, Let It Die, is a grainy, black-and-white take on those indie-fabulous things that depend on mood more than polish: bossa nova, disco-pop, French chanson. It’s already a hit in her adopted home of France and her native Canada, and it’s the first release on what Interscope’s president calls its “lifestyle imprint,” Cherry Tree. That’s the kind of marketing speak that usually signifies “Starbucks music,” but Let It Die boasts plenty of reasons not to run screaming. You don’t need a zillion-dollar stereo to practically see the room in which Feist bashes out the opening “Gatekeeper,” the guitar strings squeaking and thunking and the studio atmosphere just as present in the speakers as her breathy vocals. Lyrically, that song sets the course for the record: Feist looks at trying to keep a romance blooming when its stems have hardened, and like any good French person—native or otherwise—she decides that it’s impossible but worth a shot anyway. She picks up this theme again on the title track, a graceful vibes-and-organ waltz, singing, “The saddest part of a broken heart/ Isn’t the ending so much as the start” with admirable Gallic tristesse. It’s only a couple of unhip steps away from being the kind of musical wallpaper George Michael favors, but dang if she doesn’t nail the feeling. Elsewhere, the minimalist arrangement of “When I Was a Young Girl,” with its deep organ bass, bongos, and background clicks and pops, demonstrates the still-towering influence of Serge Gainsbourg on Francophone pop, and a cover of the Bee Gees’ “Inside and Out” surfs a beige ’70s sexiness. If it all sounds ever so calculated on paper, it’s not on record. For one thing, these songs are sexy the way real people are—their romances start not because of fate but because “The timing was right.” For another, Feist can’t sing, remember? By the time she gets to the Bob Haymes–penned ballad “Now at Last,” her voice is cracking so adorably on the high notes that only the charmless won’t be charmed. If you’re among them, hey, at least you won’t have to hear one of those vile Putumayo comps the next time you wait for your latte.
Feist performs at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, May 12, at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 667-7960.