An appreciation of Fiona Apple -our writer finds all kinds of gems in a catalogue revisitI was reminded by Brian Kehew that Fiona Apple’s first record, Tidal, came out 25 years ago today.
I’ll be the first to admit that it flew right by me when it was released. I’ve talked with other fans who came on board a bit later, and they got the same vibe that she was kind of marketed as “your crazy-ex,” and lumped in with the Lilleth Fair acts. Fair enough about the latter, since she was on the tour, but I thought of her as an outlier. Her famous “this world is bullshit” speech at the ’97 VMAs provided confirmation bias for the people who saw her as an unstable type, but she wasn’t wrong about anything, frankly.
I’m a huge fan of Jon Brion’s arrangements, so when I found out he was on her team, I decided I should have a listen at some point. Almost on cue I saw the video for “Fast As You Can,” from an album with an unusually long title, that had just been released, usually truncated to When the Pawn Hits… I was knocked over by the components that comprised the song. It’s kind of Jungle/D&B but, also, there’s a strong piano line, and some Brion-esque weird electromechanical keyboard flourishes and production. The interplay between the piano and bass, the downbeat placement – it was all really interesting. I heard “Paper Bag” right after that and was floored by how lovely it is. The outro horn arrangement choked me up.
I actively disliked Pablo Honey, so I skipped The Bends. OK Computer had me back up to reevaluate it and it was almost like I’d been given a two for one deal. It was a similar thing with Apple. I’d just ignored Tidal. I’d had no real opinion about it. When I revisited it on the strength of When The Pawn Hits… I was happy there was all of this Fiona Apple music I could hear at once, now.
Some perspective is needed:
With no internet as we now know it in place, it wasn’t just as easy as checking things out to see if our hunches were true, and I wasn’t motivated to find a CD to review. Odds were against me getting a second chance with Apple and yet it happened. I’m so glad it did. This was in the waning years of MTV functioning as a way of getting music to people via videos, and it did its job, as it had so many times before. I miss that, I’ll admit.
We all know that people can dry up creatively, so when the scuttlebutt behind Extraordinary Machine implied there was trouble lurking I wondered if writer’s block or label bullshit was to blame. The latter turned out to be part of it, but it was a complicated thing, let’s just say. I walked past the Sony offices in NYC one day, and saw people protesting about it.
Wow, her fans are that rabid? They were standing outside of the building holding up apples!
A leaked copy of the Jon Brion mixes made it out into the world because services like Napster were in full swing. I would have been happy to buy it, but couldn’t, so I fetched a P2P copy.
I loved it.
No writer’s block here, no way.
It was perfect.
The album was eventually released, after being largely rerecorded/remixed and generally brought back to the drawing board, this time with Mike Elizondo and Kehew more involved. Both had been part of her creative team of musicians but they moved into this new role, ultimately delivering a product that Epic/Sony wanted to release. I had a lot of thoughts about this at the time. If the first iteration of the album was already out there it actually made sense to release a new version…uh…right? Was that it? It was a wild new world and I really don’t think a lot of people knew how to navigate it.
Even giants like Sony.
I bought that version, because I finally could, and just adore it. It wasn’t the intention, but fans were given something they could compare and analyze. It was kind of fun, really. If you like Extraordinary Machine try it yourself. The first version is floating around, out there. Interestingly it’s not a throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater thing. The two versions have a lot of commonality. It’s not like what happened with In Utero.
Throughout her career she’s released some pretty stunning covers too. Last week I made some comments about how cover versions are boring unless you truly make them your own. I really don’t get this Miley Cyrus situation, frankly. Fairly straight bat, only missing the essence of the song in question. Lose/lose to my ears.
Contrast that with Apple’s covers which are always really interesting and have her creative fingerprints all over them.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters came out last year, at the top of the pandemic. I was happy to see it got a lot of people through some rough times. Record releases aren’t as big of a deal as they used to be and this felt like an event. It got the acclaim it deserves.
Today marks a quarter-century of her releasing deep, challenging albums when the industry seems less and less interested in them.
A lot of people think Napster was the coup de grace, but the fact is the industry had been mistreating both fans and artists poorly for the better part of a decade when Fanning unleashed that technology. People were fed up. I get it. I was one of them. An exploitive industry had gone too far after years of, well, going too far.
It was mutiny.
So it’s kind of a miracle that Apple is still putting out quality music. I think of her as a Joni Mitchell type. Calling her work “confessional” is lazy. It’s so much more than that. She’s a consummate artist, which means you know when to collaborate on a part, and bring in other musicians to execute them, and maybe get results you hadn’t anticipated. She’s the rare case of a popular artist also being really good by any measure. I still wonder who is buying all of these Beck records because they are… good. I hear great music every hour and none of it gets as big as Apple’s or Beck’s. I assume there is some momentum leftover from the old paradigm, but kudos to them for figuring out the new landscape.
As with any artist who releases records only when the time is right, who knows when the next Fiona Apple album will hit the streets, but whether it means we’ll see three or ten in the next 25 years, I’ll look forward to each one.
A great first innings, Fiona Apple. Here’s to the next.
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One foot in Chapel Hill, NC, one foot in Scandinavia. Owns a bike in Copenhagen which means the Ridder Af Dannebrog is likely forthcoming. Recording engineer, Psych Rock/'Gaze guitarist, purveyor of Moroderik Musik, and electronic warrior of TRIPLE X SNAXXX and Themes for Great Cities. Apparently pro bono if you don’t count the free drinks. Currently receiving mixed messages from various modular synths.

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