When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts...
(Clean Slate/Epic Records)
Fiona Apple sure doesn't make it easy to like her. She's got a dead man's sense of humor (surely someone told her long ago that frowning makes ya look sexy), was singing her sour-dour love songs when she was but a mere teenager (her debut, Tidal, was released when she was but 18), and her videos play like Red Shoes Diaries outtakes. Were it not for the fact that she has a trenchant voice (her rendition of "Across the Universe" on the Pleasantville soundtrack could wreck any cynic) and sings her diaries out loud, she'd be all but a footnote in the women-in-rock sweepstakes.
At her best, Apple is more like the anti-Tori: Where Amos strikes a tenuous balance between classical and rock, bridging the gap with soft-focus poetry, Apple turns the intangible into the unflinchingly concrete. She may be overwrought every single second of every single song, but at least hers is a corporeal disgust; Amos barely exists half the time. And there's nothing so difficult as coming of age in public, and Apple is not so frightened or intimidated as to hide the growing pains on her laboriously titled second disc: "All my life is on me now, hail the pages turning," she sings to open the 90-words-in-the-title disc. "And the future's on the bound, hell don't know my fury." Actually, it probably does, since Apple goes out of her way here to lay out how pissed she is ("my fingers turn to fists"), how crazy she is ("so call me crazy"), how self-loathing she can be ("it's hard enough even trying to be civil to myself"), and how much it's all your fault ("you feed the beast I have within me").
And that's where the problem arises on When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts...: We've been here before, heard this before, seen it before. With a backup band that features one ex-New Bohemian (drummer Matt Chamberlain), one eel (percussionist Butch), and slicker-than-whale-shit producer Jon Brion, Apple's made a second record that sounds so much like the first, they're all but indistinguishable from each other. The only difference is that Tidal sounded audacious and exhilarating upon its release -- the sound of a young girl trapped in the body of an old soul, possibly Nina Simone (or, well, Grace Slick). The new disc, with its knotted strings and hip-pop beats, sounds like more of the same, only less so -- "Shadowboxer" without the punch. Oh, but she tries: "You wanna make me sick / You wanna lick my wounds / Don't you baby?" she sings on "Limp" (just guess what the title refers to). Uh, not really, especially when Apple starts muttering something about how "her derring-do allows me to dance the rigadoon around you." Soon enough, a 14-year-old girl will get out her dictionary and go, "Hmm."
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