When the Pawn (Clean Slate/Epic 69195)
If Fiona Apple continues to get better with each album, thereıs no telling how shockingly great her albums are going to get. Where Tidal was good, When the Pawn is brilliant, and where the debut record was tentative, this one is totally full-on. Itıs a bastard of a breakup album, featuring some incredibly honest lyrics and Fionaıs uncategorizable musical voice, which is a bit jazzy, a bit poppy. She gets dismissed by lots of people who want to just see her as a total loon, and while she apparently doesnıt always take the healthiest road through her life, she is certainly not unaware of this. When the Pawn isnıt a perfect record, but itıs gripping and visceral, and if I keep listening to it as much as I have been, Iım bound to declare it a classic. Best review it now before I get carried away, if in fact I havenıt already. Wouldnıt want to come off like a rock critic.
Iıve probably already distinguished myself from that crowd by not making fun of the title, which is not funny except as it relates to Fiona constantly shooting herself in the foot commercially. Thereıs a distinct lack of hit singles on this album, too, but thatıs not to say the songs arenıt strong, rather theyıre just too intense and dare I say musically sophisticated to sell to radio. Even "Fast As You Can" is hardly a clear-cut single, though itıs probably the most innovative song of the ten on here. The songs are all uncompromising in their directness, but not generally sacrificing strong melodic content in favor of the lyrics, as on much of Tidal. That album I always thought was a promissory note for better albums to come, I mean she was what, like 11 when she recorded it? The emotional depth here is similar, but the outlook is more mature, more concentrated and, while still young, quite vital for that. Fiona Apple may well burn herself out, but in the meantime, Iım enjoying the fruits of her madness.
Another thing a lot of critics canıt seem to get around is the profanity on the album, but like the nudity in my vacation videos, all the harsh words on the album are central to the emotions being expressed. Personally I admire anyone who can get phrases like "Fucking go!," "Youıll be lying limp in your own hand," "Iıll keep kicking the crap til itıs gone," and "He donıt give a shit about me" into such richly melodic phrases. Did Rodgers & Hart ever write a song with "Fucking go" in it? No, sir, I say they did not. Curse words aside, the lyrics are great and integrated into the songs very well, with only perhaps "Paper Bag" and "A Mistake" coming across more as lyrics set to music than as songs.
The disc starts with three great ones ("On the Bound," "To Your Love," and the awesome, awesome "Limp"), then settles into something of a floaty phase with "Love Ridden," "Paper Bag," and "A Mistake," and then come back super super strong with the last four songs ("Fast as You Can," "The Way Things Are," "Get Gone," and the closer "I Know"). If the entire album were as strong as those songs this would be one of the best albums ever made. "The Way Things Are" is just a phenomenal achievement, really deep, instantly memorable, and honest to the core. The whole album is mid-tempo-to-downbeat, and grapples with lots of anger and sadness throughout, but itıs productive. Iım sure the songs I singled out as being less than totally marvelous are the absolute favorites of many a Fiona fan.
Jon Brionıs production is great, very inventive and subtle, like the sublime brass at the end of "Paper Bag," or the Chamberlain drum and keyboard sounds that actually sound kinda phat. Heıs like a hipper version of Mitchell Froom, never getting that slick but attaining a dynamic and clean production. Fionaıs piano and voice are always the rock around which Brionıs swirly eccentricities are allowed to run amok. Itıs a good pairing. I hope that this album does well enough that Fiona will be able to keep on doing what she does. My second hope is that she doesnıt become a genuine loon like Tori Amos. My third hope is that I never become the subject of a Fiona Apple album, because I much prefer listening objectively. I was humiliated enough on Parker Poseyıs bitter album about our breakup, Ring Around the Posey.
Review by Lobo Springsteen