When the Pawn... yadda yadda [see calendar for full title]
It was there for the whole world to see: At the 1997 MTV Music Video Awards, Fiona Apple, a little surprised and a little drunk, won the Best New Artist award. She took the stage, but instead of thanking her friends, her handlers, and her God like she was supposed to, Fiona launched a characteristically schizophrenic invective. "This world is bullshit," she said, her perfect dress framing her slender arms. "Don't go by what we think is cool -- go with yourself."
Was it a moment of righteous defiance, a bold "fuck you" in the face of television's steaming pile of self-congratulation? Or was it a ridiculous bit of hypocrisy from the self-proclaimed anorexic whose impossibly taut midriff taunted the girls and prick-teased the boys all summer long?
One thing is for sure: The woman's mouth says one thing, but her career says another. A good example is Fiona's spin on her rape at the age of 12, which has been both downplayed and highlighted for the media. She chided Tori Amos for being a "poster girl for rape," but Fiona's own promoters aggressively market her sexual assault, selling sadness, sex, and vulnerability with every image. Notably, the 1997 video to "Criminal" works hard to give the impression that the underwear-clad Fiona has just been violated in some unspeakable, yet very sexy and somewhat voluntary manner.
In defense of this packaging, Fiona claims that vulnerability has always been her greatest asset. That's what the books of Maya Angelou, whose name Fiona drops incessantly, taught her: If you embrace your weaknesses, they can become your strength. Fair enough, but Angelou never sexualized her vulnerability and sold it like a slab of pork to the slathering media.
The contradictions of her life are only expanding: The publicity materials surrounding her new album are full of Fiona quotes about keeping it real, how she rents a "cheap" piano, doesn't have a computer, and so on. Never mind that she just bought Jason Priestley's $1.9 million Los Feliz mansion, replete with a gym, pool, and wine room, to help her get in touch with her inner celebrity.
It seems that a return to the recording studio could be a welcome respite from the contradictions, but the title of her new release alone shows that Fiona has no intention of letting the music speak for itself. I won't even repeat the title here, because it's 79 words long, but just know that it's really stupid and it starts with the words "When the Pawn." The album is supposed to showcase a more mature sound, sharper lyrics, and a more versatile piano, but the self-indulgent title immediately distracts from that mission.
The strongest parts of When the Pawn are, predictably, the vocals. They've always been stunning -- when Fiona sets her bones on a piano bench and opens her pouty lips, an aged and smooth alto voice comes out. It can growl, it can accuse, and it can rock hard. The moody first track, "On the Bound," in particular is well-carried on the back of Fiona's vocal nodes. On that song, and the rest of the album, the production values are high as well -- producer Jon Brion, who worked on Fiona's first album, returns with more lush arrangements, unique instrumentations, and a bag of triphop beats to move the songs along.
Unfortunately, Fiona's creators let her have too much control in the songwriting. She is a truly bad pianist, and production wizardry can't hide the fact that she has just two speeds -- Drudging or Frantic -- and five chords to choose from. After three years of stardom, she still seems unable to play melodies, choosing instead to pound chords and sing loosely over the top. Her lyrics have also not advanced: In 1996, her words were a simple offshoot of her sexual marketing (letting us know she's "been a bad, bad girl"); but in 1999, Fiona ranges from defiant ("here's another speech you wish I'd swallow") to ridiculous ("My derring-do allows me to dance the rigadoon").
Fiona does have a great voice, though, and in another few years she could possibly make music that would survive without a marketing juggernaut. In her schizophrenia, Fiona has already given herself the advice she needs to make that happen. The album's ninth track says it all: In order to get respect, Fiona, you need to "put away that meat you're selling." -- Nathan Thornburgh
Widely regarded as the successor to Brian Eno's ambient throne, Greinke constructs albums that evoke the unsettling feeling of wandering a familiar if sometimes eerie place. Studying meteorology at Penn State prior to relocating to Seattle in 1982 influenced him to compose surreal soundtracks for his imaginary environments. Greinke's seminal 1985 album, Cities in Fog, echoed with sparse, muted electronic effects that created the illusion the title suggests. But unlike his previous atmospheric experiments, this newest release packs rhythm, dub bass lines, and jazz percussion under strange clarinet melodies and moody synthesizers. Unlike the cheesy, "sounds of the rainforest" New Age tinkling you hear at the mall, these tracks offer mutated samples woven into sublimely unnatural textures. It may not be a dance album, but the beats propel Greinke into alien and previously unvisited aural surroundings. DAVID SLATTON
Birth of a Giant
(First World Music)
Best known as the drummer for Ministry from 1986--94, Bill Rieflin has collaborated with Pigface, KMFDM, Nine Inch Nails, Peter Murphy, and many others, helping his peers make some of their best albums. The chronically grouchy Swans frontman Michael Gira gets positively cheery when he talks about the journeyman multi-instrumentalist. Rieflin does some of his best work with the collective synergy moving him, so it's no surprise to see a parade of talented friends contributing on his debut. Robert Fripp, Trey Gunn, Chris Connelly, Pamela Golden, Steve Ball, and Mark Walk all etch their disparate designs on this communal experiment. Fripp transforms Rieflin's pop abstractions into brilliant psychedelia, especially on "Endless Day" and the shimmering ear candy of "Ballad of Maria Banter." The King Crimson guitarist appears on nearly every track, and does as much as Rieflin's solemn vocals to give this album its unique sound. DAVID SLATTON
1-2-3-4: Punk & New Wave 1976-1979
There's a case to be made for the four-year period documented on this set as the last great era of the 45 RPM single, when the record sleeves and even the labels communicated as much as the 300 seconds of music contained on the vinyl. You had no hesitation in picking up Spizzenergi's "Where's Capt. Kirk?" even if you'd never heard of the band before, because the sleeve itself (a retouched headshot of James T. Kirk on a bright yellow background) told you it wouldn't be a waste of money. You weren't alone: 80,000 others were similarly drawn in, giving Mr. Spizz his 15 minutes of fame. This five-CD set trawls all the punky byways of that fecund era, focusing on the U.K. side of the Atlantic (with the occasional nod to influential Americans; the Ramones, Richard Hell, Blondie). You'll find the usual suspects (Sex Pistols, Clash, et al.), but it's the lesser knowns that are most interesting, from the incendiary blast of X-Ray Spex ("Oh Bondage, Up Yours!") to the admittedly silly Not Sensibles ("I'm in Love with Margaret Thatcher"). Plus Sham 69, the Mekons, the Vibrators, Au Pairs, the Slits, Buzzcocks, Stiff Little Fingers, Jilted John... 100 bands and a fat booklet of liner notes and record sleeves. Fab. GILLIAN G. GAAR
Kiss My ARP
(Mo Wax/Beggars Banquet)
We're not supposed to call Andrea Parker's debut album, Kiss My ARP, "dark." Parker insists on gentler euphemisms: "deep" or "weighty." Suffice it to say that someone who appreciates dark music will appreciate Kiss My ARP. It's basically a techno album, filled with beeps and blips. But the deep orchestral arrangements (along with the sampling, programming, and vocals, Parker plays cello on this album) give songs such as "Clutching at Straws" and "Return of the Rocking Chair" a tangible, well, weight. What's more, her breathy, ethereal voice and her choice of look-around-you samples (the sound of thunder, a sneeze, biting into potato chips, driving through a car wash) bring an organic element to this album that even the staunchest techno-hater will appreciate. If you need an analogy, look at the late-autumn Northwest sky -- grays layered on top of grays, pregnant with the electricity of coming rain, romantic, murmuring, heavy, yet somehow life-affirming. The Massive Attack rip-off "The Unknown" is an unfortunate opener, but this CD is still well worth the retail price. File under: techno; electro; ambient; goth (yes, really). ERIC MORSE
Post to Wire
Duby is the latest darling to spring from the loins of Sub Pop, but you'd never guess it by listening to her debut, Post to Wire. With all due respect to our near and dear label, the soulful, temperamental chanteuse is quite the departure from the crunch 'n' grind that made Sub Pop famous, despite the smart production work of label staple Steve Fisk. With her poetic, tear-jerking lyrics, Duby's songs echo Beth Orton, Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Fraser, and Everything but the Girl's Tracy Thorn. Lyrical comparisons aside, Duby's singularly emotional sound proves her to be a name that could very well rise to the ranks of those artists just mentioned.
Just you wait -- one day, some wet-behind-the-ears pop tart will be honored to have a Heather Duby name-check in HER review. COURTNEY REIMER
OCEAN COLOUR SCENE
One from the Modern
Want to relive the past? For heaven's sake, learn restraint. Don't mar your production with fancy digital frills. Don't sing every note like it's your last. Lose the pomp. Lose the bluster. In short, don't copy Paul Weller, Ocean Colour Scene's mentor. Weller never did learn when to shut his big flappin' yap. (He sings backup here, on the blissfully low-key "No One at All"). Small Faces, on the other hand... the Spencer Davis Group... all those two-dimensional white-boy English '60s garage bands knew when to strike a note, and when to stand back. So do Ocean Colour Scene. Their new album is a mini-masterpiece of restraint and passion, albeit passion displayed through a very mutated, distended time warp. Half the songs here (the anti-war "Profit in Peace," the lackadaisical "Soul Driver") could've been lifted from Australia's ace Mod band You Am I's "Hourly Daily." And that's some compliment. EVERETT TRUE
The Science of Things
No point messing with a winning formula. Bush may have been critically derided by their home-country press back in the U.K., but they've also sold over 15 million copies of their Nirvana-influenced records, and they ain't gonna start changing their sound now. The Science of Things is full of Bush's big, meaty, almost orchestrated guitar noise matched to almost unbearably catchy hooklines and Rossdale's Cobain-influenced roar. Just like Razorblade Suitcase and Sixteen Stone before it. Science... isn't so much a bad album as an intensely predictable one. Songs like "Warm Machine" and the pulsating "Prizefighter" could've appeared on any of Bush's previous three albums. Still, fans won't be disappointed; radio stations will love the pop-grunge sound; the band get to play sold-out shows all over the world, and the record company will shift millions of units. Everyone goes home happy. Except the critics.