Fiona Apple's The Idler Wheel: A First Listen
There are a lot of cool things riding on Fiona Apple. For one thing, she hasn't been chewed up and spit out by a desperate, dying industry. She's still on a major label despite not having posed for a racy photo or released anything capable of being a hit in years. In fact, despite not releasing anything in years. Her style -- baroque piano theatre that circles around "pop" more than it hits the sweet spot -- has deviated little over four albums in 16 years. Oh, and her new album The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (yup) is already receiving Best Album of 2012 nominations. Let's see if there's some truth to them.
"Every Single Night"
Apple has one of those voices where you don't entirely realize she's singing until the melody's already well underway. She kind of murmurs up to a peak, in this case a rousing "hey-hey-HEY-hey-hey" circular refrain that sounds like some kind of Turkish bathhouse meets the Flying Monkeys from The Wizard of Oz. It's good start. Crawling and gradual, yet sprightly and tight. This is the one with the video where there's a dead squid on her head, btw.
This is already her jazziest album. Lacking the Tom Waits-ish clanking and clip-clopping percussion to ground everything, her piano leads not just the meat of this, but the bones too. Drums are brushed from fast to slow, while Apple herself gets surprisingly throaty on lines like "Look. Look. Look at me." Again, the rising and falling action itself is almost the hook. Someone like Grizzly Bear is unbearable when they attempt this trajectory, while Apple sounds so expert it's almost tossed-off. In between climaxes anyway.
These one-word titles, the spare sound, total rejection of technology, and scratchy album cover with unedited title: You have to love Apple's commitment to realness in the corporeal sense. She wants you to hear the crack in her pitch, the wood in her rhythm section, the oddness of her minor chord turns after the curiously happy "I root for you/ I love you" hook. Also, how the music disappears, leaving only upright bass, before a tiny, tiny blast of orchestral steam rising before the final chorus. Her anti-pop-ness is a curiosity, too. She likes to keep the listener interested without having to resort to hooks. She's good at it.
Another thing about this woman is that we don't expect prettiness from her. Are there any pretty Fiona Apple songs? "Extraordinary Machine" had a certain twinkle to it I suppose. But she rarely strays from those mashed block chords on the bass end of the ivories that barely seem to work together. Luckily she breaks it up into total duality in this one, alternating between those unsettling bass parts and (relatively) pretty relief, without much glue in the way of her wobbly yowl. If this one's really about her boyfriend, as has been asked in interviews, I'm not sure how he feels about lines like "You're like the captain of a capsized ship" or the chorus: "I don't want to talk about/ I don't want to talk about anything."
This is the first one that sounds a little indulgent. "How can I ask anyone to love me/ When all I do is beg to be left alone?" inquires our miserablist, acerbic hero over drum-propelled jazz. In a Waits-ian scat she growls that she's "too hard to know" and doesn't "cry when I'm sad anymore." Read too much into the Waits thing and you could believe you're listening to the artist erecting her mask to escape writing from the personal ever again. But she's too fucking confessional. And this one grew on me hard by the end.
So the last album that reminded me this much of the homemade turns out to be tUnE-yArDs' excellent debut BiRd-BrAiNs, which has become somewhat overshadowed by her astounding live show and the follow-up w h o k i l l. But it sounded like a compelling scratchy racket that avoided easy tunes while softening new connections between passages in difficult ones. But Merrill Garbus sought to fill the hole of sparseness with any and all instruments available, while Apple is content to let her tunes breathe and whisper. This one uses a sample of screaming children in a crowd though, and it's unmistakably similar to tUnE-yArDs' effect. And we all know what happened to Garbus: she won the Pazz & Jop critics poll last year, which this really could slaughter in 2012.