Fiona Apple shows surprising sophistication
December 1, 2005
They are women, hear them sing.Fiona Apple, “Extraordinary Machine”produced by Mike Elizondo(Epic/Clean Slate)I’m a latecomer to Fiona Apple. I dismissed her 1996 debut, “Tidal,” (without listening to it) as teen-angst pop. And 1999’s “When the Pawn Hits the Conflict He Thinks Like A,” etc., ad nauseum, well I couldn’t even get through the title.But now I have arrived to bow at her altar. I fully expect “Extraordinary Machine” to get a bunch of Grammy nominations. Even if it doesn’t, I will still love her. And this music.What startles me is how mature, sophisticated, musical and accessible “Extraordinary Machine” is. The 28-year-old’s voice generally sounds like it came straight out of the 1940s, clear and smoky and almost coy. Strip it down and the closest comparison is current jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux. But the production, and especially Apple’s fierce piano-playing, is a thoroughly contemporary update on lush pop orchestrations of the past, with the occasional, midsong burst of postmodern cacophony. Lyrically, Apple looks inward, wondering who she is, where she’s going, and why does love have to be so sad. But her turns of phrase are often funny, rarely trite, and more ballsy than I had expected. When she sings, “Oh mister / wait till you see what I’m gonna be / I got a plan,” in “Better Version of Me,” it sounds like Apple was singing directly to me.
Susan Tedeschi, “Hope and Desire”produced by Joe Henry (Verve Forecast)Blueswoman Susan Tedeschi has got the spirit on “Hope and Desire.” Tedeschi and producer Joe Henry have selected songs from all over the map: early ’70s Rolling Stones (“You Got the Silver”), classic soul (“Magnificent Sanctuary Band”), obscure Dylan (“Lord, Protect My Child”), recent folk (Iris Dement’s “Sweet Forgiveness”). But the knot that binds all the songs together is tight. Tedeschi opens up her voice full throttle, so that every lyric seems directed to the heavens. Henry’s arrangements are spot-on, with liberal use of church-style backing singers, organ and tambourine. Adding to the family vibe is the presence of guitarist/dobroist – and Tedeschi’s hubby – Derek Trucks on three tracks. The effect can be strange: on “Evidence,” Tedeschi almost sounds as if she’s singing the praises of cheating spouses. But most of “Hope and Desire” is in a more gentle vein, as Tedeschi opens up with thanks for what she’s got and prayers for protection from what she doesn’t want. It’s powerful stuff, convincingly delivered.Bonnie Raitt, “Souls Alike”produced by Raitt (Capitol)There’s something to be said for the kind of consistency exhibited by Bonnie Raitt. It’s been over 15 years since her late-’80s renaissance, and Raitt has done nothing over a span of six albums since that has not lived up to 1989’s “Nick of Time.” Every one of her albums sells, puts at least one tune on the radio, and adds to her legacy as America’s finest female roots rocker.But there is also a predictability that runs through Raitt’s last handful of albums. Which might be why 1998’s “Fundamental,” her first outing with experimental producers Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom, is my favorite of the bunch. On “Souls Alike” – produced by Raitt, with Blake getting a co-producer credit – Raitt treads the line between safety and risk. Like all her albums, this one starts with a polished, midtempo track, “I Will Not Be Broken,” sure to find its way to radio and hook the listener. She loosens up with the swampy “God Was in the Water,” the boogie of “Love on One Condition” and “Unnecessarily Mercenary” (both written, and featuring killer keyboards, by band member Jon Cleary) and the edgy “Crooked Crown.” But she always seems to head toward familiar ground – sometimes in the middle of songs themselves, sometimes with a ballad like “So Close.” But “Souls Alike” confirms that Raitt has firmly set her parameters, for better and worse. The good side is, Raitt has built a catalog that will always be listenable. The down side is, we might not find out what happens if she cuts loose and throws herself over the edge.
Dar Williams, “My Better Self”produced by Stewart Lerman(Razor & Tie)In all ways, Dar Williams stretches the bounds of the folk-rock, singer-songwriter form on “My Better Self.” The mold of the sensitive folkie is broken right away with the opener “Teen for God,” which mocks the young and blindly faithful (“I never even swear / It’s sort of like praying I’m just not there”). Keep the sounds simple and acoustic? Not with groove band Soulive keeping her company on “Two Sides of a River.” (Echoes of her last album, which featured a horde of jam-world guests.) And playing only her own material, or obscure tunes by lesser-known writers? No; her cover songs include Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” (featuring Ani DiFranco) and Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.” The rule-breaking makes for a satisfying album, and doubly so because when Williams does stay closer to the mold of singer-songwriter, she does it quite well. “Blue Light of the Flame” mixes doomsday environmentalism and romance with a visceral chill, and “Empire” skewers Bushland with both poetry and more direct attacks.Uncle Earl, “She Waits for Night”produced by Dirk Powell (Rounder)Uncle Earl is not your Uncle Earl. This Uncle Earl is four women – Kristin Andreassen, Rayna Gellert, KC Groves and Abigail Washburn – who pick and sing old-timey music. On “She Waits for Night,” the quartet dips mostly into traditional songs taken from obscure records: “Booth Shot Lincoln,” “Sullivan’s Hollow,” “Ida Red” and a smaller number of original songs. The singing transports you, and Gellert’s fiddling is the instrumental spark that places Uncle Earl above the ordinary.Nnenna Freelon, “Blueprint of a Lady”produced by Freelon & Nick Phillips (Concord)”Blueprint of a Lady,” singer Nnenna Freelon’s tribute to Billie “Lady Day” Holiday, comes equipped with a warning: “No two people are alike, and it’s got to be that way with music, or it isn’t music,” reads the back label, quoting Holiday. Meaning no one should expect Freelon to try duplicating one of the great voices America has produced. It’s not such an easy thing to avoid Holiday’s footsteps; for a schooled female singer like Freelon, Holiday’s versions of “Strange Fruit” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” must be burned into her brain. But she takes Holiday’s advice seriously, and gives some real twists here, even putting a reggae beat to “All of Me.” Not bad. But not Holiday, either.
Sheryl Crow, “Wildflower”produced by Jeff Trott,John Shanks and Crow (A&M)First I listened to Sheryl Crow’s “Wildflower” back-to-back with Fiona Apple’s “Extraordinary Machine.” Thinking that might be unfair to Ms. Crow, I went back to “Wildflower” with fresher ears. Same result. “Wildflower” is Crow’s tame, disposable pop-rock – and now she’s got heavy string arrangements over most of it. The best you can say about it is that the Beatlesesque “Good Is Good” might sound decent if you came across it on the radio. But if you never did, believe me, your life wouldn’t be one iota less for the lacking.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org