Making points across the musical landscape

Review: The title of her newest CD is a mouthful, but there's a lot to be said for Fiona Apple's songwriting.

November 09, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Fiona Apple's new album is one for the books. The Guinness Book of World Records, that is. With what may be the longest album title in history, the name of Apple's sophomore release is more than a mouthful -- it's practically a recitation.

"When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win the Whole Thing 'Fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won't Matter, Cuz You'll Know That You're Right" (Epic 69195, arriving in stores today) is what Apple has dubbed the disc.

We'll be referring to it as "Fred."

But don't be fooled. If that 90-word moniker makes it seem as if the precocious pianist and vocalist is nutty as a fruitcake, the music itself suggests that Apple is only crazy like a fox.

Lush and soulful, the album capitalizes on all the strengths of Apple's debut yet still seems a big step forward. Whether through the percolating anger of "To Your Love" or the simmering lust of "Mistake," Apple vividly evokes a variety of emotional situations.

But there's never anything solipsistic or self-involved about her lyrics, as Apple draws the listener in by focusing on feelings we all share. As such, it's easy to relate to tunes like the string-cushioned "Love Ridden."

And there's a musicality to the songs that greatly expands upon the promise of her first album, "Tidal." "On the Bound," for instance, begins like a slow blues number, with Apple working all sorts of blue-note bends into the opening phrases.

But the tune takes a left turn with the chorus, which uses an unexpected chord change to refract the bluesy melody into something resembling a pop hook. Add in a verdant bridge softened by synthetic strings and a quirky, cartoony instrumental break, and "On the Bound" shapes up as a minor masterpiece, the sort of song that reveals something new with each hearing.

Then there's "Fast As You Can," a you'll-get-hurt-if-you-get- involved-with-me number that alternates between a brisk, funky verse and a percussive, triplet-based chorus. But what lifts the song into another dimension (and adds depth to the lyrics' intimations of dangerous romance) is the bridge, which veers off into a sexy, string-drenched 6/8 pattern that evokes "Abbey Road"-era Beatles.

Getting to that part of the song is like biting into the sweet, gooey center of a dark chocolate -- a delicious contrast, but not quite enough to take the edge off the essential bitterness.

Tracks like "Fast As You Can" owe a lot to the production, which is by studio whiz John Brion (who also handled Aimee Mann's "I'm with Stupid"). With ear-candy ranging from coolly chiming vibraphone to squiggly, ring-modulator guitar, and from clunky, distorted drumbeats to the rich, orchestral conjurings of the Chamberlain electric keyboard, Brion creates an instrumental environment every bit as singular as Apple's songwriting.

But as beautifully as Brion frames Apple's dark, husky voice, gilding the arrangements with sonic exotica, it's what lies within the frame that matters most.

Simply put, the songs on this album suggest that Apple, for all her quirks, is clearly one of the brightest young musicians working today. If you care at all about quality songwriting, you owe it to yourself to hear this album.

Just don't try to ask for it by name.

Fiona Apple

"When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts ..."

Epic 69195

*** 1/2

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