Thursday, July 9, 2009

July 9: Fiona Apple, "When The Pawn..."

Artist: Fiona Apple
Album: When The Pawn...
Year: 1999
Label: Clean Slate

The mid to late 1990's saw a massive influx of female singer-songwriters into the forefront of the worldwide music scene. With the rise of things like "Lilith Fair," upfront and honest female musicians were more in demand than any other time in the history of music. While in many ways, this caused there to be a great number of seemingly "copycat" artists, there were a handful who rose above the rest and created sensational records. Among this group of superior artists was a young girl from New York City by the name of Fiona Apple McAfee Maggart. After her brilliant, and somewhat controversial 1996 debut, Tidal, Apple seemed as if she would be content to be a darker, edgier version of Tori Amos. However, three years later, she buried the memory of her debut with her far more sophisticated and musically ambitious follow-up, 1999's When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win the Whole Thing Fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You'll Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won't Matter, Cuz You Know That You're Right.

The title itself is, in many ways, a very basic example of the overall theme that runs throughout the entire album. With her debut album, Tidal, Apple presented a rather simple, often almost naive record with straightforward, honest sound. The second musical offering from Fiona Apple is far more complex, more mature, and has far greater depth in everything from the music to the lyrics to the overall moods created on the songs. While Tidal was basically "girl and piano," When The Pawn... is a far more musically complex record, incorporating far more instrumentation, and it is clear that Apple has gained the confidence that made her debut somewhat inconsistent at times. In every sense of the word, Fiona Apple was one of the most brave and honest musicians of the 1990's. From her raw and up front lyrics to the fact that she knew the ridicule that would come with a ninety world album title, she never shyed away from doing things exactly as she wanted. The title itself held the Guinness World Record for longest album title until 2007, when Belgian band Soulwax topped the record, which would be beaten out by Chumbawumba's 2008 release. Having worked with everyone from Amiee Mann to Sean Lennon, producer Jon Brion plays a huge role on the record, as the album sounds far more mature and musically complete. The combined work of Brion and Apple pushed When The Pawn... nearly into the top ten of album sales, and the albums' lead single, "Fast As You Can," broke into the top twenty-five on both sides of the Atlantic, becoming Apple's first U.K. top twenty-five single. The far more mature sound and lyrical themes also helped When The Pawn... to crossover into other radio formats, and it is widely regarded as the finest effort of Apple's career to date.

In many ways, Apple's own piano playing takes a backseat to the large musical picture around her, which enabled her to become more than "just a girl and her piano" as is found on her debut record. In combination with this fact, the orchestrations of John Bainbridge are one of the key aspects that takes When The Pawn... to the next level. Bringing in a number of violinists (eleven different people take violin credits on the album), as well as viola's, cello's, and a number of woodwinds, the album has a far more mature and complex sound, whilst simultaneously retaining the "edge" that gained Apple much of her following. Aside from Apple herself, the only other returning musician is drummer, Matt Chamberlain. Having worked with everyone from Peter Gabriel to The Wallflowers to Pearl Jam, Chamerlain would go on to work with Tori Amos on every one of her albums since 1998. His steady, swinging feel on drums gives each song a very distinctive feel, and he is as much of a key to the albums' success as anyone else. The album itself dips and dives, featuring a number of different musical moods, from the melancholy "A Mistake" to the almost ragtime sound of "Paper Bag," to the swinging, majestic "On The Bound." It is in this musical diversity that the true talent of Apple shines, as her singing and lyrics blend perfectly into every style, presenting an amazing musical range that was absent from her debut. Letting herself explore each style, and finding perfect collaborators in both Brion and Bainbridge, When The Pawn... is a massive leap musically for Apple, yet the sound and mood stay true to everything that earned her acclaim on Tidal.

Even with the amazing musicians accompanying her on When The Pawn..., Fiona herself is always the core of the music. Her voice runs the entire vocal range, though she tends to spend most of her singing where she is best; in the moody, lower octaves, where her strong, often sultry voice can shine. It is very much in her tone and delivery where Apple retains much of her "darker" and "edgier" mood and persona. Also intact is the overall jazzy, funky mood that made her debut record so fantastic; but When The Pawn... pushes the sound further, exploring the possibilities of the fusion at every turn. Taking all this into account, the one thing that always set Fiona Apple apart from her peers was, and always will be, her lyrics. Few artists in history have been as honest and soul bearing, and her raw lyrics are one of the key aspects that made so many people relate to her and embrace her music. When The Pawn... furthers the emotionally open journey that began with her debut, as Apple presents stunning songs that are both amazingly introspective, yet far more confident than those found on Tidal. As has always been the case, a majority of Fiona's lyrics revolve around the relationships between men and women, and whether she is satirizing them as in "Paper Bag," or bearing her own stories completely, like on "Fast As You Can," her words are somehow always nothing short of perfect. There are moments, like the song, "Limp," where Apple's words are so vivid, that one almost feels part of the breakup, yet the song comes to completion as it ends with words of recrimination and resolution. Quite literally, every song on When The Pawn.. is fantastic, featuring an amazing combination of music and lyrics, and it is mostly due to the maturity and bravery of Fiona herself that makes this album so special and superb.

Proving that jazz-style, bluesy singing was not a lost art, Fiona Apple burst onto the scene in the mid 1990's and paved the way for artists like Jennifer Franklin and Dido. Taking her own influence from artists ranging from Chrissie Hynde to Billie Holiday, the sheer talent and moods created by Apple set her far apart from her peers and made her music more than just a passing fad. Taking the honest, somewhat dusky mood of her debut record and crafting far more complex musical pieces around it, her sophomore album is leaps and bounds ahead, in terms of both musical content, as well as length of album title. While the first time around, she created waves with her risqué video and unpredictable mood swings, with When The Pawn..., Apple lets the music itself do all of the talking, and it is an overall far more focused and complete record. Though little has been heard from Apple over the past few years, she did take a chance to record a handful of beautiful tracks with Johnny Cash before he passed away, as well as contributing original works to a number of soundtracks. With a trio of excellent records to her name, there are few artists of any time period who have written as candid and soul-bearing a set of lyrics as are found throughout all of the songs of Fiona Apple. Perfectly fusing together the sounds of blues and jazz, and overlaying it with a shadowy mood, as well as an undeniably sense of "hip," Fiona Apple's sophomore album, When The Pawn... is by far, her finest effort, and truly one of the more under-credited musical masterpieces in recorded history.

Standout tracks: "On The Bound," "To Your Love," and "Fast As You Can."

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