Fiona Apple: When The Pawn… (Clean Slate/Epic)

FIONA APPLE presents herself as damaged goods, both a woman wronged and a gleeful wrongdoer. That alone sets her above the teen-pop Mouseketeers; makes her vaguely human.

Some took to her because she sang of love as a fetish object, while others embraced her candor and strength. Straight men had to give it up after the bathtub sequence in the ‘Criminal’ video. I found myself warming at Lilith Fair I, where she had more loose juice than the strummy rest. On her confident new album, all those menacing hints sound like good-natured teasing — which is a breakthrough and even more fun.

On ‘Mistake’, as the music slinks like Trent Reznor preparing to sing “hey pig,” Fiona is “full as a tick” instead, sure that she’s “gonna fuck it up again” and insisting “if you wanna make sense / Whatcha looking at me for / I’m no good at math.” For all the Tori Amos comparisons that Apple will always endure, I’m not sure her royal Fairyness could ever write a song as straightforward, almost essayistic, as this one. Hammering home the point is one of this woman’s chief rock virtues.

In contrast, Apple isn’t the driving piano player Amos is, easy to judge since both rely on drummer Matt Chamberlain. Still, compared with her first album, Tidal, she’s beefed up: Listen to her slam down the point right on the first cut, ‘On The Bound’. Its three hits aside, Tidal mostly settled for languid mooning. The new record stays turned on throughout and gives Chamberlain freer rein. Finding a groove that rocks, swings, and occasionally hip-hops lets Fiona concentrate on emoting, which she does in full-on mock seriousness. The results are delicious, from the 90-word title to the way she hippie-sings “I never did anything to you, man” on ‘Limp’.

Note last song title: The album, and I say this with appreciation, is a real ball-breaker. Every time Apple faces a romantic dilemma, she errs on the side of mistrust and bad faith. (Really works those I-dated-a-magician metaphors, too, on ‘I Know’.) But because the music is so frisky — listen to how her voice dances on ‘To Your Love’ — all that jumping down people’s throats avoids seeming like a trauma list. Maybe it’s how she turns herself on. You might be scared to hold her hand, but it’s fun checking her out through pop’s rear window. 8

© Eric WeisbardSpin, December 1999

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