The hottest music from Chicago & beyond

Tag: piano

Album Review: Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do [Epic]

Fiona Apple is best classified as an eccentric. She’s been that way ever since her first album Tidal came out in 1996 and the video for “Criminal” was damaged, dark, skeletal, and above all memorable. That record and song catapulted her to a level of fame that isn’t handled well by everyone, let alone 19-year-olds with a history of mental and physical trauma. So you get awards show speeches claiming that the “world is bullshit” and tours get cancelled because of “personal family problems.” Even though she returned in 1999 with her sophomore album When the Pawn… which only further solidified her already large fan base, incidents like her meltdown at a show in NYC persisted to the point where she pretty much vanished entirely from the public eye. She said in interviews years later that she thought about retiring from music, and probably would have had things gone a little differently.

What wound up happening was that Apple recorded a number of songs with her friend Jon Brion in 2002-3, and the tracks were submitted to her label shortly thereafter. It’s still unclear if Sony refused to release the Extraordinary Machine album because it wasn’t commercially viable, or because Apple herself asked them not to because she was unhappy with how the songs turned out. Nevertheless tracks leaked onto the internet anyways in 2004 and 2005, and fans finding out the album had already been completed, launched a “Free Fiona” campaign to give it a proper release. Apple says she was moved by the fan support, and Mike Elizondo was brought in to officially complete the record, rebuilding many of the old tracks from scratch and producing a couple new ones as well. Despite lacking a true single, Extraordinary Machine still did reasonably well for her, selling almost half a million copies. Tours with Coldplay and Damien Rice kept her busy through much of 2006, and after a string of dates with Nickel Creek in 2007 she once again retreated into the darkness, nobody knowing exactly when or if we’d see or hear from her again.

One of Apple’s favorite things to do in L.A. is dropping in and playing a set at Largo, which she’s done a number of times. Jon Brion has a weekly residency there, and she’ll show up and mess around with him. She was performing there last November and after a fan asked if she’d play something new, she said she couldn’t remember how to play anything off her new album because it’s been done for a year. Recalling the mess leading up to Extraordinary Machine, things moved a bit quicker this time. No demos were leaked and no tracks were re-cut. Epic Records head L.A. Reid promised in January that the album would be out soon, and five months later here we are. The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do is not the longest title Apple has ever affixed to one of her records, but it’s still more of a mouthful to say compared to anything else released recently. This fourth long player has her teaming up with percussionist and producer Charley Drayton to make a raw and uncompromising collection of songs the likes of which she’s never quite done before. It’s not a huge directional shift that’s set to redefine her trademark sound, but a few small adjustments have been made to emphasize her particular strengths that much more.

Apple could well have gotten away with making The Idler Wheel… an entirely a capella record, and judging by the way most of the songs progress, that’s probably how it started anyways. Her voice comes first, percussion second, and piano or other instrumental flourishes third. Such an emphasis on singing means she can wrench every single painful or joyous moment out of a lyric and push it straight into your own heart. On opening track “Every Single Night,” her voice quivers and lowers to almost a whisper when singing the lines, “I just wanna feel everything.” There’s an almost childlike innocence about it, one that’s carefully balanced against her riled up anger in the chorus, as she practically shouts, “Every single night’s a fight with my brain.” Much of the record does find her battling with her personal demons. “Don’t let me/ruin me/I may need a chaperone,” she ominously sings on “Daredevil”. Those feelings only spiral down further as the song progresses, and eventually she throws a temper tantrum, demanding, “Look at! Look at! Look at! Look at me!” with such throatiness you can envision tears of anguish streaming down her face. Yet in spite of the emotions that bleed through her voice, on “Left Alone” she claims to be more in control of those things than ever. “I don’t cry when I’m sad anymore,” she confesses with a calm and even-toned demeanor that nearly betrays the scat-jazz melody built around it. Mentally drained from searching for a reason for her solitude, Apple ultimately concludes she’s sabotaging herself. “How can I ask anyone to love me/when all I do is beg to be left alone,” she cries out.

When she’s not eviscerating herself over her own perceived flaws, Apple largely sticks to the familiar topic of good relationships gone bad. Of course when you tear up your voice yelling lines like, “I ran out of white doves’ feathers to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth every time you address me,” as she does on “Regret,” there’s nothing familiar or normal about it. Things don’t get much better on “Valentine,” where the sprightly chorus has the lines, “I root for you/I love you,” but the verses detail a love that has gone stale. “While you were watching someone else/I stared at you and cut myself,” she bemoans somberly. Not everything on The Idler Wheel… is sad, angry or disturbing though. The piano melody of “Jonathan” brings with it feelings of dread, but the lyrics are tender and sweet. Apple wrote the song about her ex-boyfriend Jonathan Ames and has nothing but nice things to say about him. “Werewolf” is in essence a break-up song, but it puts a positive spin on things by taking an equal blame perspective and a bright outlook for the future, where “We could still support each other/all we gotta do is avoid each other.” The sound of children playing that comes in near the end of the track emphasizes the somewhat playful vibe but also adds a tinge of sadness as an expression of lost youth, innocence and a time when love was the easiest and most organic thing in the world. Similar qualities are taken on by “Anything We Want,” which is uncharacteristically optimistic at the start of a relationship that really could go anywhere. Closing track “Hot Knife” builds off that vibe in an even more celebratory way. As Apple gushes over a great relationship, harmonies build atop one another in an off-kilter fashion, each singing a different part of the song until it’s a bird’s nest of voices and you can barely make out a word. The drums fade, and the last 30 seconds are just those vocals alone, each one competing for your attention and representing the many sides of Fiona Apple.

Vocals and lyrics aside, one of the biggest keys to the success of The Idler Wheel… is Drayton’s percussion work. He gets extremely inventive with how the rhythms are put together on the album, quite literally pulling from the kitchen sink for inspiration. When some artists say they experimented with percussion outside of traditional drums by hitting objects they found around the house, you can’t always tell that’s the case. Given the sparse arrangements on this album though, every bit comes through with forceful purpose. Light double taps on a bass drum mimic a heartbeat on “Valentine.” The rhythmic push and pull on “Jonathan” could very well be that of an office copy machine spitting out page after page just slightly offset from the driving piano melody. Shoes scraping against pavement create the march-like pace on the sprightly “Periphery,” and “Anything We Want” features pots and pans and a host of other hollow metal objects being tapped with a stick. The album credits also mention that a pillow was hit for percussionary purposes as well, however it’s not exactly clear when and where that happens (not that it matters). All of it contributes to the record’s unique charms, of which there are many. Apple has never made an album quite like this before, and it represents a seismic shift in the way we perceive her both professionally and personally. She’s still the same unbalanced and somewhat damaged girl we met over 15 years ago, but now more than ever she’s in control of her demons. A new sense of freedom comes along with that, and she takes full advantage of it. Those looking for the next “Criminal” or “Fast As You Can” will be left sorely disappointed. But if you pay close attention to the lyrics and allow yourself to fully engage with these songs, you’ll find a wealth of power, beauty, anger and tragedy poured out with the intent of reaching even the most hardened of hearts. It might not be the easiest thing to listen to, but nothing this brilliant ever is.

Fiona Apple – Every Single Night

Fiona Apple – Werewolf

Buy The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do from Amazon

Snapshot Review: Perfume Genius – Put Your Back N 2 It [Matador]

After a criminally ignored debut album “Learning” in 2010, Perfume Genius (Mike Hadreas) is back with a graceful sophmore effort titled Put Your Back N 2 It. Kitschy and fun as that title may be, the music contained within is anything but. Those familiar with his first record will find many of the same or similar painful topics tackled once again with serene grace and aplomb. Physical and mental abuse, drug addiction and sexual trauma are all parts of Hadreas’ world, as they are parts of so many others’ as well. On “Learning” he fully embraced that darkness, which often made the record difficult to listen to. It was the warmth of his sparse, lo-fi piano arrangements that helped to turn these ugly moments into bearable ones. He’s cleaned up his sound quite a bit, expanded his instrumental palette just a little, and injected a touch of positivity to his lyrics to help make Put Your Back N 2 It feel like a good cry and a warm hug. On “Dark Waters” he comforts a victim of molestation with the quavering words, “I will take the dark part of your heart into my heart.” Hadreas also pushes for strength in sad times on “No Tears” by singing, “I will carry on with grace/Zero tears on my face.” Songs such as “All Waters” and “Hood” deal with love in all its forms, the former a meditation on the acceptance (or in some cases non-acceptance) of homosexuality in our world today. A 16-second promotional video for the album, which featured Hadreas being cradled like a baby in the arms of gay porn star Arpad Miklos, wound up being pulled from YouTube under the controversial excuse that it was promoting mature sexual themes (there was no nudity in the video). That’s more tragic than the song itself. Instrumentally speaking, Hadreas keeps things pretty simple: almost every track is either a piano ballad, a quiet acoustic guitar number, or a murky synth soundscape. Only moments like the title track and “17” dare to incorporate some violins and cello to flesh out arrangements for dramatic effect. So much of the emotion on this record is contained within Hadreas’s vocal performances, which at times quake in the precious style of Antony Hegarty and Stephin Merritt or gently whisper with the heft of “Seven Swans” era Sufjan Stevens. Few people have dared to make an album so brave, honest and topical, and that’s a big reason why Put Your Back N 2 It is such a success. With two excellent albums now under his belt, it appears that Perfume Genius is certainly living up to the second part of his name.

Perfume Genius – Dark Parts
Perfume Genius – All Waters
Perfume Genius – Hood

Buy Put Your Back N 2 It from Amazon

Album Review: Kate Bush – 50 Words for Snow [Anti-/Fish People]

What do you know about Kate Bush? The answer to that question isn’t necessarily age-specific, but undoubtedly the older you are, the more likely you are to know who Kate Bush is and what she’s all about. Ask you average 17 year old kid about her, and 99% of the time you’ll be met with a blank stare. The same probably goes for most 20-somethings too. Play the song “Running Up That Hill” for them though, and you’ll get some familiar nods and maybe even a few, “I thought that was a Placebo song”. Similar things could be said in regards to “Hounds of Love”, which The Futureheads to deftly covered a few years ago to much acclaim. And like it or not, Kate Bush continues to have a pretty big impact on new artists today, and perhaps the best, closest example is Bat for Lashes. Natasha Khan’s voice and her moody compositions in many ways makes Bat for Lashes the new Kate Bush, though time and quality of material will act as the official judges of that.

While the 80s had Bush at the peak of her powers, like any number of classic singer-songwriters her star has faded with time and a lack of the spotlight. After 1993’s “The Red Shoes”, she took about 12 years off from music. While many felt she had become a recluse and no longer wanted anything to do with people, fame and fortune, the truth is she gave birth to a son and decided to put her career on hold to raise him. It would be 2005’s “Aerial” that would mark her big comeback, something that’d ultimately be met with mixed enthusiasm. As great as it was to have such a prolific and interesting storyteller making music again, her songs primarily about her life during those 12 years away from music were minimalist and sluggish compared to her back catalogue. Earlier this year Bush also tried to pull a Peter Gabriel and give her career a kick in the pants via a re-exploration of her old material. “Director’s Cut” featured re-recorded and drastically reworked versions of songs off 1989’s “The Sensual World” and 1993’s “The Red Shoes”, the main idea being to give them a more modern adaptation to reflect current trends and also play more to Bush’s voice, which has gotten deeper with age. The reaction was again widely mixed, as you might expect from an artist messing with material some might consider to be “classic”. Appropriately enough though, Bush has one more trick up her sleeve in 2011, and it’s only fitting she unleashed it as the weather turns cold and most prepare for a long and brutal winter. You can’t quite call “50 Words for Snow” a Christmas album, but its wintry theme certainly makes for a stellar soundtrack in the months ahead.

It’s not quite as simple as saying a unifying concept was all Kate Bush needed to earn back the critical acclaim and respect that was bestowed upon her in the mid-80s, but evidence suggests it likely played a small hand in it. The focus it takes to write 65 minutes worth of stories about snow really appears to have worked for her, the overriding theme connecting beautifully with the delicate and primarily piano-based arrangements. One of the biggest surprises about “50 WOrds for Snow” is how at a grand total of only 7 tracks, the shortest song clocks in at just under 7 minutes. The average length is closer to 8 minutes, while the longest moment comes courtesy of “Misty”, finishing at around 14 minutes. That song tells the story of building, falling in love with, and essentially having sex with a snowman, only to wind up disappointed when it melts. It’s the sort of WTF idea that you’d rather write off as a joke given how absurd it sounds, but Bush treats it with the utmost sincerity and passion. The result is more “Lars and the Real Girl” than it is “Weird Science”, supported by the thought that in the absence of a perfect man, you can build one out of snow. Elsewhere on the record, opener “Snowflake” chronicles the path of one little white piece of frozen water, unique in its own way, falling from the sky towards the ground. A search for a lost dog is the plot of “Lake Tahoe”, and the title track has actor/writer/poet/comedian/brilliant British guy Stephen Fry slowly reading off all the different ways to describe snow as a skittering electro landscape backs him up with occasional interruptions by Bush singing a chorus to break up the monotony. And speaking of guest vocals, Elton John duets with Bush on “Snowed in at Wheeler Street”, where they play starcrossed lovers that can never stay connected through many key events in world history.

Outside of the wintry theme, the main connecting tissue between these tracks is an underlying darkness and earnestness in how they’re delivered. Bush sells every track by holding firm to her aesthetic choices and drawing upon brooding atmospherics to add a sense of dread to even the most innocent of songs. It’s what works best for her, and where she also sounds most comfortable. Undoubtedly Bush is no longer the goth-pop chanteuse straight out of the 80s, but is able to show how she’s evolved with the times. This is an adult record with an adult temprament, even as it gets in your face and asks you to suspend all rational thought in the hopes of inspiring just a little flight of fancy. You’re only as old as you allow yourself to be, and though “50 Words for Snow” can get pretty heavy and mature, you don’t have to take such things as truth. They’re only stories, after all, and with this record Kate Bush proves yet again that she’s one hell of a storyteller.

Buy “50 Words for Snow” from Amazon

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén