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The Riot Act

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b>The Riot Act

by Danny Gregory




Fiona Apple

When The Pawn...

1999; lean Slate/Epic


I've always been a little perplexed by people whose existence seems to revolve around one artist or piece of work, as if nothing else in the lengthy and vast history of culture appeals to them on any level. It's hard to imagine anything more stifling than being, say, an Edison historian whose sole purpose for being is to chronicle and study everything and anything Edison. I picture Edison historians from around the world gathering at an Edison Historians Convention and just seething with resentment towards the prolific inventor to whom they've dedicated their lives.


"Fucking Edison," one might say. " I just want to dig him up and punch him in his dead face." Another historian then points out that Edison patented the ill-fated Exhuminator in 1907 and the entire meeting collapses into mean-spirited Edison bashing. I mention this because I, at the tender age of 17 and in the very midst of a period of great confusion in which I dabbled in the shallow end of the pool, dated a girl whose obsession with Fiona Apple bordered on unsettling. She listened to nothing but Fiona Apple. Our conversations, despite my best efforts, always seemed to steer towards her. I would decry the smoky piano ballads that dominated her debut album, Tidal, as boring and trite, after which my short-lived girlfriend would refuse to speak to me for the remainder of the evening. I tried my best to expose her to other, superior musicians who were as readily available and mainstream as Fiona Apple supposedly is. During one of our several bedroom conversations (though there was little or no touching, a fact that almost certainly hastened my escape from the relationship), I spun Portishead's Dummy expecting rapturous acceptance and a momentary reprieve from Fiona F'n Apple. No such luck. She said something to the effect of "This is really night-time music, isn't it?" and I was sufficiently crushed. In a last ditch attempt to make her like something, anything that I liked, we viewed my tape of Radiohead's then-recent performance on Saturday Night Live together. Halfway through "The National Anthem," she remarked "This song doesn't have many lyrics" and made no secret of the fact that she would much rather be watching the rerun of Unsolved Mysteries we had caught a glimpse of as I rewound the tape. Subsequent attempts to endear her to Built to Spill, My Bloody Valentine, PJ Harvey, and various others all ended in a request to play one of my Fiona CDs. The whole miserable affair ended a few weeks later, fortunately, after I insulted the cleanliness of her house. I've since found myself incapable of listening to Fiona Apple for good reason: I've seen the ugliness inherent in Fiona addiction and I have no desire to return to that awful place. Which obscures the simple fact that this, her second album, is really quite good.


On The Bound


The album starts with what is, for all intents and purposes, the most musically ambitious song of Fiona Apple's career thus far. Layers of sound, both pretty and ugly, drift in and out, briefly wrapping themselves around some typically bleak lyrics. This is no swooning piano ballad, either. There's some hardcore piano torture going on here. Her collaborators build upon the foundation of the song in a way that they rarely did on Tidal, which could very well be an extremely simplified explanation of why this is a vastly superior album.


Rating: 8.5


To Your Love


Another fairly upbeat song, in that it moves along at a stealthy pace. Some multi-tracked vocals add an eerie effect but the absolute best, most subtle nuance in this song--if not the entire album--is the xylophone-ish keyboard on the bridge. You have to listen somewhat closely but it's well worth it. It's one of those discoveries that either reaffirms (a) your belief that being an audiophile is well worth the trouble if only for the moments of sheer bliss you can experience with only a little effort and a good pair of headphones or, (b) your suspicion that you will never, ever get laid again.


Rating: 9




What must it be like to date Fiona Apple? Can Paul Thomas Anderson be entirely comfortable with the fact that his girlfriend penned absolutely searing lyrics like these while dating him? I, for one, would be somewhat concerned by bedroom conversation that included my loved one asking if I can think of a line that rhymes with "It won't be long 'till you'll be lying limp in your own hands." Ominous sounding percussion percolates beneath the surface of this song, eventually giving way to an aggressive--nay, hostile--chorus. Church bells, a drum solo, and some piano round out the third straight strong track. Maybe there's something to this Fiona obsession deal.


Rating: 8


Love Ridden


Ack! Erghh! A goddamned piano ballad! This song reeks of the smoke and silk that made me so apathetic to her debut album. This type of thing is much more palatable when it isn't surrounded by several songs exactly like it, but I'm still not fond of it in any particular way. Fiona gives it the old college try, throwing in some half-bellowed angst to make things more interesting but to no real avail. Which is not to say that this is a bad song, necessarily. Just think of it as the best song Vonda Sheppard of Ally McBeal fame never wrote. Or stole, for that matter.


Rating: 6


Paper Bag


This song starts with some artificial record noise: hissing, popping, etc. Then, inexplicably, there are two instances of decidedly non-Fiona Apple-like record scratching that are so brief and irrelevant that no one who isn't paying complete attention will ever hear them. Someone must have brought a turntable to the studio that day. The whole thing is dominated by Fiona's voice, appropriately, and some nice muted horns. Not a particularly extraordinary song but nice nonetheless.


Rating: 7.5


A Mistake


The most aggressive song on the album, the name of which is a candidate for the subtitle to my eventual autobiography. The whole thing is rather funky, come to think of it. Some muted guitar-wahs accompany Fiona's piano playing throughout the song, broken up occasionally by ambient noises and electronic drills. The whole thing stops for a drill solo about midway through. There's a whole drill symphony on display at about the 2:30 mark, creating an interesting way to break up the monotony. Bravo.


Rating: 8.5


Fast As You Can


A brief bongo solo opens the track, before the ever-present piano interrupts and appears to mean business this time around. Surely this is the obvious lead single! In all honesty, there are too many tempo changes for the average mainstream music fan to latch onto this song. Music needs to move in a straight, unwavering line in order to be played on Top 40 radio regularly. Any sort of deviation is deemed "artsy" or "weird," and thereby not suitable listening material. Judging by the ambitious turn taken on this track and this album in general, Fiona Apple doesn't mind very much. Good for her. This time around, she appears to be attempting to convince a potential partner to run from her quickly. Hence the title. At about the 1:30 mark, there's an abrupt and intriguing tempo change that takes the song from its previous speed to a more ambient, though piano ballad-ish interlude. It then returns to its original speed and toys with a number of effects before closing with some doctored vocals and The Piano accompanied by a strange but endearing electronic noise, the origin of which eludes me entirely. This is far too good to be a hit single.


Rating: 9.0


The Way Things Are


Starts auspiciously piano ballad-y but with an uncharacteristically strong melody and various bleeps entering and exiting almost unnoticed. It's almost futile to attempt to describe the rest of the song. It's by far the best track on this album, keeping you utterly enthralled with nothing more than Fiona Apple's voice, her piano, and drums that are placed low in the mix. I'd be remiss in not mentioning the keyboards and various other gadgets that aid the sound in becoming so enveloping. It's all fairly remarkable.


Rating: 10


Get Gone


Again, she fools the collective listener by beginning slow and unadorned but for the piano but quickly adding a variety of instrumentation and aggression. Another fantastic song. There's more genuine emotion in this one song than in everything that's sullied Top 40 radio for decades. Fiona proves here that, when she pens truly excellent lyrics, her ability as a vocalist in creating a significant emotional response in the listener is as good as anyone else currently creating music. Wow.


Rating: 9.5


I'll Know


Yes, this is a piano ballad. But it's also an excellent stab at rounding out an excellent album. It's long been a rock tradition to close with a quiet, somber song, and this is certainly no exception. But the vocal flourishes she adds make it seem extraordinary, overwhelming the musical flourishes or lack thereof. You're left feeling faintly uplifted--these songs may paint bleak pictures of love and human relationships in general, but they also provide an opportunity to hear the best work of one of the most promising talents in music today. One of the most promising female talents, anyway.


Rating: 9.0


All in all, I'm rather fond of Fiona Apple's second album. It improves upon her debut in every possible area and was, in my opinion, probably the most emotionally wrenching album released on a major label in 1999.


Overall: 8.5


The liner notes are equally touching, to be quite honest. One the sixteenth page, accompanied by nothing but white page and a small black box, is a loving tribute to the PTA. For too long, the folks in the Parent-Teacher Association have been cruelly ignored by the entertainment industry. These people help shape the regulations that dictate the environment in which our children attend school. They're an integral part of our society; one that's far too important to be shunned by our children’s idols and heroes. God bless you, Fiona Apple, for being such an impeccable role model.

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