If you have been following Fiona Apple’s career, you would know that she is not known to cater to the mainstream audience. Yet, each of her records have been in the limelight of popular culture, though out casted at the same time for notoriously alienating her fans. After more than a seven year hiatus from touring and recording, Apple has released what is arguably her strongest and most progressive record yet, while at the same time keeping true to the roots that have made her so well known.
One of the core elements that make The Idler Wheel such an enticing record is her tasteful use of space. While each song follow similar pop song structures, the intricacies of the instruments and melodies are what make each song so enjoyable. The sparse nature of the recordings allows each instrument and sound to act as featured parts, giving it a very homegrown compositional palette. One of the most obvious examples of this can be seen in the records use of percussion, which not only provide interesting rhythmic backing, but also embellish what the songs are about. In “Jonathon,” the percussion comes from a sampled factory, giving the song a mechanical and brewing mood when paired with Apples demanding vocals. From the goofy velcro ripping on the sarcastic song “Periphery,” to the lonely heartbeat in the melancholy “Valentine,” Apple (along with her producer and friend Charley Drayton) certainly give each of the songs their own personality.
Percussion is not the only thing that gives The Idler Wheel its character. Obviously, Apples piano playing and vocals are almost always the focal point of each song, and rightly so. Fiona has a frightening quality in her voice that forces you to listen to every thing she says, and part of that comes from where her voice sits in the mix. Fiona’s main vocal track always sits nakedly in every song, so that the listener feels every voice crack, lip smack, or body quiver, as if she’s singing right next to you. In addition, the lyrical content of her songs are so cleverly (and clearly) written that the listener is sucked into the speakers and plopped back out into the world she’s singing about. In the song “Anything We Want,” Apple’s description of her rare encounters with love creates one of the only positive moments on the record. To coincide with that, the vocal quilt “Hot Knife” acts almost as a sultry appendix to her tale on “Anything We Want,” as she gets “feisty” with her new squeeze.
On the other hand, Fiona’s darker side certainly dominates the record. The jazzy track “Left Alone” rips the heart out of the listener as she woes “how can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?.” The dynamic vocal performance on this track not only dazzles technically, but emotionally as well, as her performance sends shivers down the listeners spine after every hook. On the record’s second track “Daredevil,” Fiona asks her listener not to “ruin” her, but exclaims that she still “might need a chaperone.” In a recent article written by Dan P. Lee in Vulture, one is able to further understand Fiona’s warped psyche, filled with weed laced lemonade and OCD. Judging from the comments on the article, her quirky qualities may turn off some of her audience, but for others it just intrigues them even more.
While this review certainly notes some high points in the record, that isn’t to say that the songs that weren’t mentioned are by any means weaker. Each song has it’s own personal strengths, making it both a cohesive album as well as a collection of ten separate songs. At the same time, The Idler Wheel, though a fantastic record, is not for an easy listen. This is not background music, although it still follows a pop song format. The Idler Wheel is a pop record at heart, but demands the attention of its listener, from beginning to end.
Key Tracks: Jonathon, Hot Knife, Left Alone
Sean Rubin- Muzikreviews.com Contributor
July 31, 2012