Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fiona Apple's The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do...on LP

Right now I'm kicking myself for not having discovered Fiona Apple sooner than now. She's been on my radar since her 1996 debut Tidal, and I found her first single "Criminal" intriguing, but evidently not enough to merit a purchase. I have friends, male and female, who think she's a goddess--and these are generally people with excellent taste. When her new album The Idler Wheel... started receiving over-the-top praise, I checked out if it was available on vinyl. It was, and after a couple of weeks with this wholly original and fascinating album I'm totally under her spell.

The Idler Wheel...was "recorded in secret," starting back in 2008. Fiona was disappointed with the reception her last album, 2005's Extraordinary Machine. Two versions had emerged, one favored by her longtime collaborator Jon Brion, and the result was a promotional nightmare. It didn't help that the commercial appeal of the album was somewhat restricted compared to her other releases (I find myself thinking of Kid A once again), so she decided to make this album a more private and guarded affair. It's clear upon the first listen that The Idler Wheel is a personal effort from an uncompromising artist, and the simplicity and purity of these ten songs are breathtakingly unique.

What you get here are ten songs that are little more than Fiona, her piano and some grungy, earthy and muted percussion from another longtime collaborator, Charley Drayton (who co-produced the album with Fiona instead of Brion). While it's certainly difficult to upstage Fiona's sultry, tense and emotional voice, Drayton nearly does it with a varied selection of hittable objects--possibly bells, cardboard boxes, vibes, 55-gallon drums and even what sounds like a pair of muddy combat boots being dragged along a concrete slab ("Periphery").

The strength of Fiona's voice, as always, is augmented by her soul-baring lyrics. She keeps it simple, sexy and honest. "How can I ask anyone to love me/when all I do is beg to be loved?" from "Left Alone" is delivered in a manic growl that betrays a wealth of conflicted emotions. "Periphery" opens with the thought provoking declaration: "Oh, the periphery/They throw good parties there." She's definitely a songwriter who knows how to make even her throwaway lines stick like glue.

Fiona saves the best for last; the last three songs on the album are the most memorable. "Regret" features a piano chord progression so somber, dissonant and yet strangely playful that those thundering notes will stay in your head for the rest of the day. "Anything We Want" is probably the closest the album comes to a radio-friendly single, which is not a bad thing in a decidedly non-commercial album such as this. The last song, "Hot Knife" is certainly the most light-hearted track on the album--it's funnier than hell to listen to Fiona compare herself endlessly to a hot knife and her lover a tab of butter, and vice versa.

Sound quality of the LP is a minor concern. For an album that took four years of focus and hard labor, the overall sonics are a bit claustrophobic and dark. It's not a severe flaw, however. This slightly closed-in feeling reminds me of my audiophile LP pressing of Carole King's Tapestry in that it's warm and inviting if not quite state-of-the-art. Still, I'd like Drayton's flourishes to be fleshed out a little more and not relegated to the background. It's a minor quibble for a great record, one that I'll listen to over and over for quite some time.

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