Fiona Apple, “The Idler Wheel…” (Epic)
Insecurity sometimes gets the best of Fiona Apple. It happens at award shows, onstage and, most brilliantly, in her music. Bare emotion has defined her as a songwriter and a vocalist. But we’re not talking simple love and hate.
Her psyche, at least on record, is raw and savage and twisted, peppered with remorse and hope.
Apple’s new album, online and in stores Tuesday, revels in her unique brand of misery business. Even the full title – “The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do” – is difficult to grasp.
(That’s nothing, however, compared to 1999’s “When the Pawn …,” whose full title includes more than 400 characters.)
Even after several listens, “The Idler Wheel” is still a bit of a mystery.
But it’s also an addictive listen. And that’s probably the way Apple wants it. There are moments of jazz improvisation, striking vocal choices and intense lyrical moments. She hits a confident, comfortable groove, surrounded by banging drums and (of course) pianos.
“While you were watching someone else/I stared at you and cut myself,” she confesses amid the somber piano of “Valentine” before pleading “I love you – you, you, you.” The repetition makes it all the more desperate.
Vocally, Apple is a powerful force. But here, she allows herself to the point of flawed notes. Her range hits its breaking point against the fluttering rhythm of “Daredevil,” shivering at the top of her range. And there’s raging hurt inside “Regret,” a swirl of pointed remembrances from a bad relationship that pushes her, literally, to the point of screaming. It gives the whole thing a fierce wallop of intensity.
First single “Every Single Night” was a sly, expectedly quirky tease set to a jewelry-box arrangement. (And I can’t be the only one who picked up a Popeye reference in there.)
It’s a perfect representation of the album but still gives nothing away. “Jonathan” manages a sweet nostalgia in its sadness; and “Werewolf” is a love song of sorts, despite Apple comparing her lover to sharks and other unsortly creatures.
But Apple is at her best when she’s questioning – everything. “How can I ask anyone to love me?” she wonders throughout the shifting tempos and keys of “Left Alone.”
”You found a prettier girl than me,” she snarls during “Periphery,” which marches along a military cadence. “I don’t even like you anymore.”
There’s a lot of heartache happening, but some hope and humor, too.
Apple charges things up during “Hot Knife,” a genius mashup of layered vocals, beatnik attitude and tribal drums. And she gets caught up in a swell of optimism during “Anything We Want.”
Because, really, anyone who can comfortably sing about being “a neon zebra shaking rain off my stripe” (favorite lyric ever) can’t have it all bad. –Joey Guerra, Houston Chronicle
Patti Smith, “Banga” (Columbia)
“Banga,” Patti Smith’s first album of new songs since 2004, sets out to dissolve boundaries: between nations, between past and present, between speech and song, between art and life, between her band and fellow musicians. Like her other albums, it juxtaposes rockers, lullabies, elegies, incantations, love songs and myths in the making. But Smith is not only looking back.
At 65, she presents herself unburdened by age. She identifies on this album with voyagers, adventurers and her fellow artists; she’s still determined to explore. “We were going to see the world,” she announces as the album begins, with a song called “Amerigo.” At the album’s climax, with the spoken words and roiling psychedelic jam of “Constantine’s Dream,” she envisions the painter Piero della Francesca on his deathbed in 1492, dying the same day Columbus lands in the New World.
Smith’s liner notes explain that the album was made gradually and in multiple places. While she traveled widely — performing, creating art exhibitions and promoting her National Book Award-winning memoir, “Just Kids” — her band members were working on their own and with friends, recording tracks that she would eventually top with her lyrics.
The process made the music diverse, expansive and surprisingly meticulous; there are string arrangements, Asian gongs and a track built around the folksy mandocello played by her drummer, Jay Dee Daugherty. That one, “Mosaic,” hints at Celtic ballad, Bollywood pop and Smith’s own imagistic mysticism: “Last night was a rapture in the mosaic sky/Dropping shards of love.”
The songs have back stories. “Banga” is named after Pilate’s loyal dog in the Mikhail Bulgakhov novel “The Master and Margarita,” waiting centuries with his master to enter heaven. But the album is mostly a stomping drone, building and kicking up feedback behind Smith’s theological reflections — “Night is a mongrel/Believe or explode,” she proclaims — and, at one point, her singing along with the electric guitar, gleefully nasal: “dee-ooh-ree-ooh-ray-oh-ray-oh.”
Between poetic rhapsodies, the album’s concise rock songs gleam. Smith and her band’s bassist, Tony Shanahan, bring slowly swaying doo-wop chords to her elegy for Amy Winehouse, “This Is the Girl.” They also collaborated on “April Fool,” a fond invitation that tingles with guitar lines from Tom Verlaine, another vital survivor from the dawn of punk at CBGB in the 1970s. As much as she looks back, Smith isn’t limiting her horizons. In “April Fool,” she sings with what sounds like a smile, “Come, let’s break all the rules.” –Jon Pareles, The New York Times