Fiona Apple

Tidal
When The Pawn...
Extraordinary Machine
The Idler Wheel...


Tidal (Sony ’96) Rating: B+
This brash 19 year old has made waves because of her big mouth and bad temper (who among us who witnessed it can forget her bratty "this world is bullshit!" rant at the MTV Music Awards?), but also because of her precocious talent. Though this album, on which Apple admits “I’m heavy with mood,” could use some more snappy melodies like the memorable hit single “Criminal” (that’s the one with the famous - some would say “infamous” - video that goes “I’ve been a bad, bad girl, I’ve been careless with a delicate man”), her deep, sultry voice is immediately striking. And though her lyrics, like the kiss off sentiments of “Sleep To Dream” and the “he’s bad from me but I can’t resist him but I’m going to hold him off this time” conflictions of “Shadowboxer” (hit single #2) are typical of most current young female singer songwriters, musically speaking she’s wise beyond her years. Built around her smoky voice, as well as simple yet classy piano and lush string arrangements, most of these slowly paced, jazzy torch songs are much more subtle and richly nuanced than what most of her peers are attempting. A highly promising debut that heralds a bright future, here’s hoping that Apple mixes up her delivery more and pens a livelier set of songs next time (some overly long plodders drag the album down a bit). Given the young waif’s propensity for getting herself into trouble, following her own advice (“I don’t want to talk ‘cause there’s nothing left to say”) might not be such a bad idea, either.

When The Pawn… (Sony ’99) Rating: A
Tidal was extremely accomplished but also a bit one-dimensional and boring over the long haul, and this sophomore set was a major improvement on all fronts, even though it lacked a high profile hit single along the lines of “Criminal” and was subsequently less popular as a result. She’s been on her best behavior too (except for that ridiculous hissy fit over at NYC’s Roseland), so it’s easier to forgive the preposterously pretentious 90-word album title (hence the simplified When The Pawn… abbreviation) and simply get lost in the album’s provocative tuneage. Fiona’s still boy crazy, and her songs still tell tales of dysfunctional relationships. But at least Apple knows she’s immature and messed up (“if you wanna make sense, whatcha looking at me for?”), and she even seems content with this fact (“I’m much better off the way things are”). You still don’t want to mess with the angry young woman side of her (witness “Limp” and “Get Gone”), but her increased self-awareness and maturity makes it easier to care about the protagonists in her songs. It helps that Apple, with the assistance of producer Jon Brion, has more interesting sounds at her disposal this time out, as she’s able to pull off the loud, adventurous rocker “A Mistake” and lush, sultry ballads such as "Love Ridden" and "I Know" with equal ease. In addition to her prominent piano playing and of course her provocative, husky voice, edgy electronics and clattering percussion enhance some of these songs, and the album's layered, inventive production (again, there are a lot of cool sounds on this album) is miles more audacious and sophisticated than the comparatively straightforward, simple arrangements of her first album. By contrast, this album has considerably denser, artier arrangements, but more importantly, the songs themselves are flat out better, even if most of them require a few spins before they really start to sink in. Stellar album opener "On The Bound" has an almost industrial tint at times, and "To Your Love" has a haunting intensity that brings P.J. Harvey to mind, as this far more diverse album - witness the dynamic tempo and mood shifts on “Fast As You Can,” another clear album highlight for me - definitely belongs in the "rock" section of your local record store. In addition to the consistently strong music, keeper lines like “hunger hurts but starving works when it costs too much to love” (from the wonderful "Paper Bag") also absorb, and as a result this album deservedly appeared near the top of many a year end critic list.

Extraordinary Machine (Sony ’05) Rating: B+
As with the Dave Matthews Band’s Busted Stuff and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, this album is already famous (or infamous) for the story surrounding it. Apparently Apple took some time off after her surprisingly excellent When The Pawn... album, but she was finally coaxed back into the studio by Jon Brion, and an album was completed in 2003. Either Apple didn’t want it released or the record label deemed it too uncommercial for release; the only sure fact is it was not released, at least not officially. However, as with the aforementioned albums, the album was leaked on the Internet, and a Web site, www.freefiona.com, was set up to pressure the label into releasing it. Problem is, Fiona was now dissatisfied with the album herself, or maybe she always was, and she wanted to re-record it with hip-hop producer Mike Elizondo (50 Cent, Eminem, Dr. Dre; ironically, Brion would soon work on Kanye West’s hip hop album, Late Registration). Realizing that there was a dedicated audience awaiting a finished album, Sony complied with Apple’s wishes, and two years later, six years after When The Pawn... was released, Extraordinary Machine finally hit the shelves. Now, I’ve deliberately never heard the Brion versions (I suppose they’ll eventually appear on a 2-cd deluxe reissue of the album), but I do know that the two songs that bookend this album, “Extraordinary Machine” and “Waltz (Better Than Fine),” were left over from the Brion sessions, while the rest was recorded with Elizondo. So, how is the music on this album - was it worth all the fuss? Certainly the title track gets the album off to a stellar start, being the type of cute, quirky number that Bjork used to do before she went totally weird on us. “Get Him Back” then kinda comes and goes, only getting really good towards the end, as the song is a microcosm of the album on the whole, as stunning moments are undercut by slightly uneven material and a more hit-and-miss production style; the percussion in particular seems out of sync at times. “O' Sailor” is overly long but really good, with forceful piano and moody synths plus a full choir of Fiona singing, while the carnival-esque "Better Version Of Me" (which, like several songs here, seemingly alludes to her ordeal in making the album) is an example of the cluttered everything-but-the-kitchen-sink arrangements that at times undercuts the effectiveness of these songs. The toe tapping "Tymps (The Sick In The Head Song)" has groovy hip-hop-styled verses and a lush, pretty chorus, and these seemingly at odds styles work surprisingly well together, though it takes a little getting used to. Perhaps realizing this, "Parting Gift" returns Apple to the simplicity of Tidal with a piano/vocal-only ballad, and a very effective one at that, as Apple's (extremely underrated) gifts as a lyric writer (and her not so underrated gifts as a singer) elevates it well above the ordinary. "Window" follows with a memorable, deceptively hooky "angry young woman" rant whose melody is perhaps a tad over-stuffed at times, before "Oh Well" continues with a more "normal" orchestral ballad, and again it's a good one, with cutting, quotable breakup lyrics a la When The Pawn..., while on "Please Please Please" she saves her bile for Sony, though this melody is much lighter, almost upbeat and quite ear pleasing. Apple (or Elizondo) puts the tricks away on "Red Red Red," opting for a sparse simplicity, and it's a good decision, as Fiona bares her soul; those of you who don't think that relationships require work should listen to this song, which features Fiona's most passionate singing on the album. After such heavy fare, "Not About Love" unsurprisingly has a lighter piano melody, at least for a little while as it has several jarring tempo shifts that matches her stormy emotions; quite clever, actually, even if I'd hardly call it easy listening. Anyway, that leaves us with the Brion produced final track, "Waltz (Better Than Fine)," which is indeed a waltz but one that contains those ornate, idiosyncratic Brion/Apple touches that I've come to respect so much. The song provides a clever, creative conclusion to a somewhat scattered but always interesting album. It's certainly not as consistently stellar as When The Pawn..., but it is arguably more imaginative and reveals more upon repeat listens than Tidal, and the album holds together surprisingly well given its labored gestation. So, to answer my earlier question, I'd say that yes, overall this album was worth all the agony and the long wait. Still, here's hoping that next time Apple can stay better focused and stay away from the drama that unfortunately always seems to surround her and overshadow her impressive music.

The Idler Wheel... (Epic ’12) Rating: A-
After a long seven year wait, Fiona Apple finally came back with The Idler Wheel... (the full title is 23 words long, much shorter than When The Pawn... at least), which more than met the high expectations I (and many others) have for her. Really, when one considers the female singer-songwriters who came of age in the early-to-mid '90s, few have had more intriguing careers thus far than Ms. Apple. This time she self-produced with percussionist Charley Drayton, who is the primary instrumentalist along with Fiona on piano and whose clattering, inventive percussion colors the mood of many of these songs. As per usual, Apple's (often multi-tracked) vocals also provide many a highlight, and the sound is more spare (strikingly so as she tones down the ornate arrangements so prominent previously) and the album is her strangest and most eccentric yet. True, these jazzy, sophisticated tunes offer little in the way of radio friendly melodies or easy accessibility (I therefore won't single out any individual songs), this is more of a "grower" type of album that's meant to be listened to multiple times, attentively. Lyrically, the album's most quotable line ("how can I ask anyone to love when all I do is beg to be left alone?") exemplifies her complex duality, and for the most part I heartily approve of her poetic confessionals (elsewhere she states "I stand no chance of growing up"), though there are times when I wish she would simplify her prose and not be quite so (at times uncomfortably) honest. Easy listening this is not, so if it's light, breezy fun you're after, then this isn't the album for you. However, if you want something a bit deeper than that, something emotional that gets better the more you get to know it and is a flat-out fascinating, utterly unique listening experience, then The Idler Wheel... should certainly fit the bill.

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