June 2012

The Idler Wheel . . .Fiona's Back and Discordant As Ever

Clean Slate/Epic 197863
Format: CD

Musical Performance

Sound Quality

Overall Enjoyment

Fiona Apple's long-awaited fourth album is many things, but conventional isn't one of them. A thoroughly original work, The Idler Wheel . . . is unfiltered and raw in all the right ways. From start to finish, Apple unabashedly unleashes herself on listeners with a characteristic frankness, reflecting heavily on past romances and her deep-seated insecurities. It would have been easy for such subject matter to be rendered in a trite, angst-ridden manner, but Apple's tenuously rich falsetto allows the music to take on a multifaceted feel, with "Left Alone" teetering between moments of confidence, frustration, mania, and resignation.

The quality of the performance would be for naught if the production's craftsmanship weren't equally accomplished. Instrumental accompaniment is usually sparse, letting Apple's vocals remain the focus of the listener's attention, and the fleeting moments of harmony and lack of consistent musical meter only further this aim. There's no sense that Pro Tools has over-processed the proceedings with too many digital filters, as the entire soundstage is often utilized to great effect, with easily discernible instrument character and spacing.

More an evolution than a departure from her past releases, this outing offers nuances and maturity that warrant several passes. It's unlikely that a single song off of The Idler Wheel . . . will become a hit single, but taken in aggregate, the collection is worthy of serious consideration.

The CD by itself comes in off-white, heavy-stock paper packaging that seems more vintage than brand new. The liner notes are rich with Apple's hand-written lyrics and stylized illustrations. While I partook in the CD alone, there are two other, more expansive releases of The Idler Wheel . . . The first is a 180gm LP that also comes with an MP3 version, and the second is a CD/DVD box set that includes a fold-out album poster and a DVD featuring footage of five live performances from the 2012 SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas.

Be sure to listen to: While many of the tracks are noteworthy, the propulsive quality of "Hot Knife" (track 10) makes it a rhythmic, toe-tapping good time. Its fun, playful tone is something of a reprieve from the rest of the album's more melancholic feeling, and a fittingly more upbeat conclusion to what is arguably Apple's best album yet.

. . . Hans Wetzel