Fiona Apple unleashes utterly creative, exquisite album

Fiona Apple performs at the NPR showcase during the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas in March...
(AP Photo/Jack Plunkett)
Story by Randall Roberts
(Los Angeles Times (MCT))
Fri, Jun 22, 2012
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FIONA APPLE “The Idler Wheel ...” (Epic) 4 stars

You learn a lot about Fiona Apple by what she chooses to reveal in the lyrics to her new album, “The idler wheel is wiser than the driver of the screw and whipping cords will serve you more than ropes will ever do.”

A songwriter whose greatest flaw is evidenced in the extended title, the Los Angeles singer and pianist has on her latest record ironically offered her most focused, refined and best-edited album in the 16 years since her (one-worded) debut, “Tidal.”

Over the course of a perfectly sequenced 42-minute album, Apple describes herself as “a still life drawing of a peach,” “all the fishes in the sea,” “a fugitive too dull to flee,” a tulip in a cup, a dewy petal and a moribund slut. These sorts of reveals are nothing new, of course.

Apple, 34, has always been a first-person songwriter unafraid of sharing intimacies and speaking in absolutes. But because this is only her fourth album since 1996 and her first since 2005’s “Extraordinary Machine,” few had any idea of the ways in which she had perfected her craft in the last seven years, or how she’d learned to build songs delicate enough to be beautiful but sturdy enough to support her voice.

Apple’s “The Idler Wheel” is an exquisitely rendered work, with as many thrilling moments of silence and space as with vocal drama. It’s essential 2012 listening for anyone interested in popular music as art. And like all great albums, it’s an encapsulation of all that has come before it as filtered through a singular aesthetic.

“The Idler Wheel” embodies American musical styles ranging from Tin Pan Alley to funk and carries the weight of generations. Inside her craft is a whole lineage, from the stormy R&B of Nina Simone on “Valentine,” to the jazz runs of Thelonius Monk on “Jonathan,” the way she pinches her voice like Billie Holiday on “Left Alone” to the barrel-house style of Fats Waller on “Periphery” (which features percussion that sounds like feet shuffling in gravel).

And knowing a little bit about the breadth of her experience only adds to “The Idler Wheel” impact. Apple was born into a show business family — her grandmother was a dancer in the 1920s married to a singer-woodwind player who toured with big bands; Apple’s parents are both singers and actors, and her sister is a professional cabaret singer in New York.

You can hear inspiration trickling down in every note of “The Idler Wheel,” as though within her voice is her ancestry. You can even experience it on “Largo,” a bonus cut recorded as an advertisement to her favorite L.A. venue, and one of the only places over the last seven years she’s performed. When she popped up at the venue one Friday night in November to guest during her longtime collaborator Jon Brion’s regular gig, she was a spectral presence and performed, among others, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” It’s one of her favorites for a reason.

That Largo was once known as the Coronet might not have much relevance to the casual listener, but that it’s the same venue where Bertolt Brecht premiered work while he was living in Los Angeles in the 1940s, where Igor Stravinsky helped paint the lobby, and the place where Kenneth Anger premiered “Fireworks” matters. Those types of unspoken accents pepper all 10 songs on “The Idler Wheel” and add to its depth.

But the record wouldn’t be anything without the melodies, the drama and the sheer creativity at work, the kind that is wonderfully jarring. Like Apple’s doodles, which are peppered throughout the CD booklet, her songs at first look to be the works of a talented diarist. But they blossom once they hit air.

At one point during the exhilarating closer, “Hot Knife,” I said out loud with no one else in the room, “Jesus Christ, this is beautiful.” While cleaning my apartment, I stopped midtrack and stood there dumbly as Apple sang with perfect rhythmic grace the chorus, “I’m a hot knife, he’s a pat of butter.” It’s a musical moment that every fan seeks to replicate, when invisible sound waves hit the eardrums and everything changes.

That “Hot Knife” chorus, like the entirety of “The idler wheel is wiser than the driver of the screw and whipping cords will serve you more than ropes will ever do,” embodies the thrill of being not only a music fan but also a fan of the human spirit in all its wildly dramatic and emotionally ravaged glory.

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