Fiona Apple
The Idler Wheel...

(Clean Slate/Epic)

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.

It 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 recorded.

Let's 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.

As 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.

Every 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.

There's 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.

Valentine 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.

Jonathan 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 motion.

Coming 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.

In 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 performance.

Maybe 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.

Regret is another excellent track, with a sinister-sounding loop, a fine chord progression, and a claustrophobic mood. Very expressive percussion, and a "B" section whose melody opens up while the voice almost tears itself to pieces.

It's 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.

Many 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

Beppe Colli 2012 | July 14, 2012