Album Review: Fiona Apple, “When The Pawn…” (1999)

My obsession with Fiona Apple started back in late 2005, when I purchased her third studio effort, Extraordinary Machine.  I fell easily for Apple’s sultry vocals, exquisite songwriting, and catchy tunes and literally wore the CD out (I had to buy a new copy of it a year after owning it, because I had played it so much on my CD player and it had gotten scratched).

Since I became a fan of Apple (whose real name is Fiona Maggart- Apple is her middle name) halfway through her career, I realized I had some backtracking to do.  I quickly purchased her second album,When The Pawn…, which turns out to be yet another gem in Apple’s discography.  She teamed up with producer Jon Brion (whom also worked on Extraordinary Machine, and has worked with Kanye West) to create a sturdy album full of great tunes, stunning lyrics, and of course, that signature voice of hers.

The album begins with a quirky little tune titled On The Bound.  Most of Apple’s songs are about love, though thickly disguised with wry narration and punchy one-liners.  This song may be one of the few exceptions, however- Apple simply croons throughout the chorus, “You’re all I need…”, and, for once, the song isn’t disguised by tough girl bravado and more about simply missing someone and wishing you could return to the way things were.  The song’s unique sound is mostly due to a jaunty piano and synthesizers, giving it a strange vibe that’s actually nice.

Though the opener is exciting, things really get good with Limp.  I absolutely love the way this song begins- with slow piano and Apple singing, “You wanna make me sick, you wanna lick my wounds, don’t ya, baby?”.  The tempo picks up by the chorus, as drums are added in, and Apple’s attitude returns.  I say “attitude” because Apple is pretty notorious for being the “angry girl” type singer (which is what I was hinting at before), and this song is no exception, especially as she bitterly shouts out in the chorus, “It won’t be long until you’re lying limp in your own hands.”  I suppose Apple has reasons for being so incredibly bitter when it comes to love, but even if she doesn’t, she does it with finesse.  I do grow tired of a lot of the Alanis-type female singers that do nothing but complain about men in their songs, but at least Apple does it with a fresh style and inventive lyrics (“You feed the beast I have within me/You wave the red flag, baby you make it run run run/Standing on the sidelines, waving and grinning/You fondle my trigger, then you blame my gun”), so I can appreciate her music a hell of a lot more.

Love Ridden is perhaps one of the most poignantly written songs in Apple’s catalogue, and one of my favorite songs by her, ever.  The slow-churning ballad tells the story of the eventual demise of a relationship (“I want your warm, but it will only make me colder when it’s over/So I can’t tonight, baby/No- not “baby” anymore, if I need you/I’ll just use your simple name/Only kisses on the cheek from now on/And in a little while, we’ll only have to wave”).  Not only are the lyrics fantastic, but so is her delivery; she sings the song with incredible emotion, and you almost feel as though you’re intruding on a private moment as her voice slightly breaks while she sings,  “And now I’m giving up on you…”  Personally, the song is one I turned to during one particularly bad breakup a few years ago.  Apple perfectly portrays the feeling you have when you know you should be letting go of someone but it’s hard…moving past that phase of being lovers, to friends, to acquaintances is one of the hardest parts of getting over someone.  It seems like Apple has had a very intense experience in that area, or either she’s just a damn good songwriter.  I’m betting it’s both.

Fiona Apple 10 2012

The album picks back up with Paper Bag, an upbeat song with some of my favorite Apple one-liners.  The song is brilliantly written with some incredibly tongue-in-cheek, clever lyrics that I just love (“He said, ‘It’s all in your head,’ and I said, ‘So’s everything’ /But he didn’t get it”, is one of my favorite lines in the song) .  Musically, the song  is similar to a lot of the songs on her follow up; mostly composed of piano and horns and Apple’s vocals.

Funnily enough, before I ever heard any of the songs on When The Pawn…, the first song I ever heard from the album and loved was Fast As You Can.  In conjunction with the title, the song is fast paced and the words nearly rush out of Apple’s mouth as she sings.  The thing I’ve always loved about this song are the sarcastic lyrics (“Oh darling, it’s so sweet, you think you know how crazy /How crazy I am/You say you don’t spook easy, you won’t go, but I know/And I pray that you will/Fast as you can, baby run free yourself of me/Fast as you can”) and how Apple basically portrays herself as a bad girl (“My pretty mouth will frame the phrases that will/Disprove your faith in man”) but goes right back to admitting that she’s human and just wants to be loved (“And I’ll be your girl, if you say it’s a gift/And you give me some more of your drugs/Yeah, I’ll be your pet, if you just tell me it’s a gift”).  Again, Apple’s “attitude” is hugely apparent here, and I could see some people not warming to her hard exterior, but I like it.  I think she’s a strong woman, and I love that she portrays that in her lyrics.  She’s no Britney Spears.  She’s got moxy.

Sadly, the rest of the album isn’t as strong.  Though none of the songs are bad by any means, a lot of them serve as useless filler, which was the same problem I had with Extraordinary Machine.   To Your Love is a fairly catchy number that’s upbeat and pleasant, but that’s about it.   A Mistake is a decent enough song, and has pretty good lyrics (“And when the day is done, and I look back/And the fact is I had fun, fumbling around/All the advice I shunned, and I ran/Where they told me not to run, but I sure/Had fun, so/I’m gonna f-ck it up again/I’m gonna do another detour”), but kind of drones on for too long without changing things up musically.  The Way Things Are is so incredibly forgettable, that I actually didn’t realize it was on the album until just now.  Musically the song is a bit grungier than her other tracks, but it quickly fades into mediocrity by the chorus.  Get Gone is a ballad, and again, a nice one, but nothing very exciting.

The album ends on such a note with I Know, another ballad.  Apple’s vocals sound very nice here- she sings the song straight and her tone is smooth and pretty, almost calling to mind Norah Jones.  Actually, the entire sound is very reminiscent of Jones- from the jazzy piano, to Apple’s straight-laced delivery.   Lyrically the song is about being the other woman in a relationship, and pretending it’s not bothersome(“I will ask no questions/While I do my thing in the background/But all the time, all the time/I’ll know, I’ll know/Baby-I can’t help you out, while she’s still around/So for the time being, I’m being patient”).  I give Apple props for writing about a topic I haven’t seen covered in this exact way, but the song is really far too plaintive for me to enjoy it, and the five minutes that it occupies seem to drag on for far too long.

Fiona Apple’s second album, When The Pawn… is mostly a solid collection of songs, with plenty of examples of her stellar artistry.  Even the songs that fall somewhat flat don’t fall far, and Apple’s talent is always apparent in each and every song.

Rating: 200px-4_stars.svg

Track Listing
1. On the Bound
2. To Your Love
3. Limp
4. Love Ridden
5. Paper Bag
6. A Mistake
7. Fast as You Can
8.The Way Things Are
9. Get Gone
10. I Know


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