Friday, May 02, 2008

Album project: Fiona Apple

Fiona Apple, Tidal (1996): Fiona Apple's debut effort shows surprising power and maturity for an 18-year-old singer-songwriter. On Tidal, Apple shows off her rich, dusky voice and a competent, jazz-inflected piano style suggestive of an older, more experienced performer. As a songwriter here, Apple is still a work in progress. For her debut, she drew upon the experiences of her troubled childhood, including a rape when she was 12, adding an edge to angst-ridden performances such as "Sleep To Dream" and "Sullen Girl". At times, Apple succumbs to the occasional high school poetry class cliche, but Tidal's best tracks, such as "Shadowboxer" (embedding not permitted) have a sultry sophistication revealing an artist of great promise.

Apple shot to fame with the video to "Criminal", featuring the singer in skimpy lingerie in a series of suggestive poses. Why would Apple, seemingly desiring to join the ranks of more serious singer-songwriters, have consented to such a move? She told Spin magazine, "I decided if I was going to be exploited, then I would do the exploiting myself". Indeed, the first shot from the "Criminal" video, where Apple points a camera at the viewers, suggests that she knows full well of her audience's voyeuristic urges. (Mark Zeltner has written a fine analysis of the "Criminal" video.) Naturally, "Criminal" remains Apple's biggest pop hit to date.

Apple won the 1997 MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist, where she stirred more controversy during her acceptance speech with her scathing criticism of the recording industry, proclaiming "This world is bullshit, and you shouldn't model your life on what you think that we think is cool, and what we're wearing and what we're saying". Actually, Apple was doing no more than suggesting that her fans live their own lives instead of being swayed by the glamorous (and often fake) images sold to them by the entertainment industry. Offended media types, though, questioned the wisdom of Apple's biting the hand that was feeding her, especially during an awards show. Combined with Apple's growing reputation for erratic stage performances, many began to speculate that her career may be short-lived.

Fiona Apple, When The Pawn... (1999): The full title of Fiona Apple's sophomore effort at one time held the record for longest LP title - believe it or not, at least one still-longer title has been released since then. When The Pawn sees Apple still maturing as an artist, as her lyric writing has improved, and the music more adventurous than on the debut. Standouts include the up-tempo and musically intricate "Fast As You Can", the smooth jazz of "Paper Bag", and "Limp" (again, no embedding permitted), a kiss-off to a former boyfriend featuring the assertiveness of Apple's best work. When The Pawn is a solid follow-up effort.

Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine (2005): Apple began work with producer Jon Brion on her third disc in 2002. Scheduled for 2003 release, Epic Record pushed back the release date several times, supposedly because the label felt the record lacked commercial appeal. When it began to appear that Epic was uninterested in releasing the disc at all, tracks began to leak onto the Internet, with rumors starting that Brion was the source of the leaks. Apple's fans began petitioning Epic to release the full disc; they also started a website, Free Fiona, to keep pressure on the label. Apple and Brion went back to the studio with producers Brian Kehew and Mike Elizondo to rework some of the tracks, and Extraordinary Machine was finally released in October 2005.

For all the trouble, Extraordinary Machine is a disappointing effort. It's mostly a rehash of ground covered on When The Pawn, lacking the accessibility of that disc while covering little new ground. Despite the effort put into the record, much of it sounds unfocused, perhaps the result of all the re-recording. Although Extraordinary Machine received good reviews and won favor with Apple's fan base, little of this record caught hold with me.

Where Fiona Apple goes from here is anyone's guess. She remains an enigmatic figure, still uneasy with her fan base and the trappings of the recording business in general. Apple is supposedly at work on her next LP at this time; I expect her continual disappearances and reappearances to become her standard operating procedure. Perhaps one day we'll see Apple release a record that finally fulfills her vast potential.