The Idler Wheel...
And so, it was while I was busy staring at the horizon in the hope
that a masterpiece would appear - and yes, I know that nowadays it's the
very notion of "masterpiece" that's called into question, so
I declare myself ready to settle for something that combines a good dose
of formal innovation (it goes without saying that this includes the so-called "technical
area"); one's perception that all parts combine harmoniously into
a meaningful, logical whole; and the skillful use of multiple musical languages;
(so we are well beyond the "I like it, you'll like it, too" sphere)
- that the masterpiece I had hoped for was waiting for me, having appeared
out of the blue, inside my mailbox (where else?).
But was it really so unexpected? Well, if there's an artist who in many different
ways is quite unpredictable, that's Fiona Apple. But I have to admit that
the thought that the well-known US musician and singer could give birth
to a work that so effortlessly combines great beauty and an innovative
use of the recording studio that greatly enhances the psychological effect
the music has on the listener, had not really crossed my mind.
(But everything comes at a price, of course, and here the price to pay is that
this is definitely not an album that everybody will like. While all those
who'll bother to listen will be able to make a few interesting discoveries.)
I'm sure readers remember the giant imbroglio that seven years ago surrounded
Fiona Apple's most recent (!) album, Extraordinary Machine. First, the
album that was recorded and produced by trusted Apple collaborator Jon
Brion was never released; later, a version that all those involved regard
as being a not-yet-finished-item appeared - illegally - all over the Web.
Then, the album was re-conceptualized and (for the most part) recorded
again with (bass player and multi-instrumentalist) Mike Elizondo at the
helm, the released item sounding quite like a lukewarm soup which left
a bitter aftertaste in most listeners' mouths.
All in all, lotsa money spent, gossip galore, no clear tales, poor sales.
has to be said that even the release of Fiona Apple's new album - whose
title in full reads The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw
and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, with The
Idler Wheel being the title conventionally chosen by most publications
I've seen - was not totally free of controversy, some sources stating that
Apple's record company was completely unaware that the album was being
just stick to facts. To work on the album, Fiona Apple chose drummer and
multi-instrumentalist Charley Drayton (whom I recall, back in the day,
as being a contributor to Keith Richards's X-pensive Winos, but who can
sport a long and varied CV) as her main collaborator and co-producer. Then
we have Sebastian Steinberg (whom I saw onstage a few years ago, playing
with Lisa Germano), on double bass on a few tracks; last track only, we
find Maude Maggart on multiple vocals.
I really have to mention those who worked on "the technical part":
John Would and Edison Sainsbury recorded the album (the former in California,
the latter in New York), Dave Way mixed it, Howie Weinberg being the master
engineer. The sound of this album really shines: it's been a long time
since I listened to such "natural" instrumental timbres - skins
and drums especially, starting with snare drums - of such beauty, songs
calling the listener to get "inside" the album's sonic framework.
it is to be expected, Fiona Apple composed and sang all the songs that
appear on the album, but I'd like to stress her important role in playing
many instruments besides her usual piano and in creating loops and "field
recordings". Drayton's contribution is equally important, and he's
featured on many string and percussive instruments. Apple and Drayton have
painted a sonic landscape which, while featuring many "ambiguous"
elements (many listening sessions won't be enough to reveal all the album's
mysteries, this being only appropriate here), greatly simplifies the harmonic
framework while it multiplies the variety of percussive and rhythmic elements.
Apple's voice - or, better said, voices, since timbres and volumes go hand-in-hand
with the meaning of the lyrics and the singer's performances (something which
has obviously come at great expense and effort, but excellence is never cheap)
- is free to become a prisoner of voluntary constrictions.
Single Night is a classic opener; sounds from the celeste bring to mind
a musical box, there's a dry orchestration, a fine snare drum, the double
bass in the background, the whole having a ghostly mood.
a fine performance by Drayton on Daredevil, which has many vocals, well-recorded
snare, and a tense vocal line with fine backing from percussion. The song
has a fantastic bridge, and many vocal timbres.
is a fine piano ballad that I'd like to listen to on the radio, Apple playing
chords on the piano, at first slowly, then as a kind of bossa. There's
an intelligent "cut" for multiple double basses.
slowly moves inside industrial, metallic-sounding noises, cymbals, and
loops. Apple's left hand plays a ¾ arpeggio, her right hand playing
a very sad-sounding waltz. The track has a dream-like mood with a circular
at the end of Side One (well, not quite - there's a vinyl album, which
I've never seen), Left Alone is in many ways the most surprising track
here. Solo drums halfway between Art Blakey and Max Roach start the piece,
then a claustrophobic piano arpeggio (which to me sounds looped), a snare
drum with a very audible snare, a fast swinging double bass, the whole
is really noteworthy, with explosive crescendo from the drums.
a different way, it's Werewolf - first track on Side Two, so to speak -
that's the most unusual track here. Very Bacharach-like in ¾, it
hides a tense tale under peaceful music, which in a way is an Aimee Mann
specialty - and just check the song's chorus, both the melody and the vocal
because it sits between two great songs, I didn't find Periphery as being
so special. But the song has a fine melody line, fine vocals, and percussion.
is another excellent track, with a sinister-sounding loop, a fine chord
progression, and a claustrophobic mood. Very expressive percussion, and
"B" section whose melody opens up while the voice almost tears
itself to pieces.
at this point that the album mood changes quite a bit, a decision which
I highly praise. Anything We Want has a circular rhythmic figure, a fine
melody, and a light chorus. There's a beautiful, symphonic-sounding, bridge
with arco bass and layered percussion.
female voices, and a vocal melody that to me sounds quite "ethnic" -
and which reminded me in some ways of Imogen Heap's writing - Hot Knife
has an overture for timpani, some "trance" moments, and gives
the album an appropriate "release".
© Beppe Colli 2012
CloudsandClocks.net | July 14, 2012