Wednesday, June 20, 2012


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, 2012

Give the woman credit: she once held the world record for longest album title and, while it's barely over a quarter of the length of the title of 1999's When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win the Whole Thing 'fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember that Depth is the Greatest of Heights and if You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and if You Fall it Won't Matter, cuz You'll Know That You're Right, the title of Fiona Apple's latest album is certainly a mouthful on its own. Not since the heyday of post-rock and bands like Set Fire to Flames (or Marnie Stern) have titles been so willfully prolix. This is not a marketing gimmick, though; she doesn't need long titles to sell records or generate interest. There's enough investment in Apple's work that, in the lead-up to this album (including her shows at SXSW), it sometimes felt as if the entire internet was waiting for it, ready to lavish praise. I don't have a personal investment in Apple's music--I owned Tidal at one point, but I haven't seen that CD in long enough to say that I'm pretty sure I no longer own it, and while I will occasionally put "Criminal" on the jukebox (as much to remember my pubescent fascination with its video as to enjoy what's still a pretty captivating song), I would hardly call myself a serious fan. I barely qualify as an un-serious fan.

Like the last record I reviewed--Liars' WIXIW--The Idler Wheel sinks and/or swims on the back of its intense insularity. Of course, whereas the Liars' album saw them branching out into electronics and fully consolidating their position in a tradition of Euro art-pop, Apple foregrounds the insular nature of her record by relying primarily on her voice and piano. There are some sublime moments when other touches creep in--a beautiful loop that swells up on "Valentine," some wonderful bass on that track and on "Daredevil," the relentlessly propulsive drums on "Left Alone," the disembodied children's voices on "Werewolf" (which I expect to be the next single), the backing vocals on "The Periphery"--but, as it's been seven years since her last album, you're given a healthy dose of Fiona to focus on here. Her voice is an instrument of startling power and force, and she takes full advantage of those properties, exploring her full range and letting loose at times with a kind of demented fervour that is either effective or grating depending on the listener, I imagine (for me, it's six of one, half a dozen of the other). Similarly, her piano playing is impressively nuanced, moving from flowing lines to jerky, staccato sections without any show of strain, ballet-like in its interactions with Apple's voice.

The Idler Wheel is at its best when the insularity works to create gorgeously open, free songs, bereft of any apparent plan and able to follow the baroque twists and turns of Apple's phrasings. Many songs avoid obvious verse-chorus structures, but rarely do they stray into consciously difficult structures. Sometimes, as on "Jonathan" or "Regret," the song is structured around a refrain that works as a kind of mantra, Apple testing out all the various inflections of the words and letting her voice do the emotional heavy lifting. Other songs, like opener and lead single "Every Single Night," offer a structure that's a little closer to a traditional pop song, though on that song Apple's whooping turn in the chorus manages to use the unease it provokes as a way of at once subverting and highlighting how catchy it is. Indeed, for an ostensibly "pop" album on a major label, the music here gets a lot of mileage out of dissonant and gnarled passages--like the bass rumbles that erupt in "Daredevil," the curiously monotone bleat (which reminds me of Gal Costa) of the repeated "when all I do is beg to be left" on "Left Alone," and the howled "The lava of a volcano" from "Werewolf"--as much as the more obviously elegant melody of "Valentine."

While the album's insularity pushes it to some wonderfully unique moments full of unexpected beauty, the relatively limited palette leads to subtle differences holding more weight than they otherwise might, and the middle of the album suffers at times from being a little bit indistinct and run together. "Jonathan" and "Left Alone" are almost twins, despite the latter's impressive vocal gymnastics, and they would be better served by more distinguishing features. Similarly, "Periphery" is slightly overlong, and manages to detract from the very momentum it injects into this stretch.

If the album's middle can drag at times, though, its closing trio of tracks is, like the opening trio, a nice distillation of all of its strengths. "Regret" is unflinchingly direct, its percussion track offering real weight and hitting like a series of body blows, while Apple lets her voice fall out entirely or briefly ascend to a shriek as she repeats the devastating lines "I ran out of white doves' feathers / to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth / every time you address me." On an album that often calls forth surprising associations, the opening of "Anything We Want" is strikingly reminiscent of that of "Ponderosa" from Maxinquaye, while its lyrics offer the most poignantly optimistic view of life on the album. The best, though, is saved for last, with the glorious multitracked Fionas of "Hot Knife" offering a playful conclusion as suggestive of a horde of robotic backing singers as the jazz tunes its rhythm hints at.

Overall, The Idler Wheel is an intriguing listen. There's nothing particularly safe or obvious about what Apple is doing here, and if there is a deeper pleasure to be found with either a substantial personal investment of past fandom or a willingness to puzzle out the contexts of her lyrics, the album offers a surface intriguing enough to draw the casual listener in. It's a bold move to ask listeners to either engage with an album on its own terms or turn away, but that feels like what Apple is proposing here. Credit her for making engagement worthwhile, and--crucial to the possibility of this engagement--for the album's crystal clear production, which encourages close and careful scrutiny of its details, a rarity in the era of loudness wars and major label releases that often hurt to listen to. Whether or not the album was worth the seven year wait I leave to her more devoted fans to sort out, but I have to think that this would be a welcome addition to her catalogue whenever it appeared.

Thursday, June 7, 2012


Liars - WIXIW
Mute, 2012

To start with--and as all reviews have had to note, especially given this video--it's pronounced "Wish You."

I feel at a loss for how exactly to review this album. It's not because I don't know how I feel about it--I really like it--and it's not because I don't have things to say about the songs (I do!). I think it's because I'm just not sure of the place in which this record exists. In many ways, WIXIW is an album that's out of time--not timeless, but not readily identifiable with any particular time period. It could have emerged in any year since the turn of the century/millennium--there's little that marks it as a record released in 2012. Though this is the most "electronic" record that Liars have released, its electronics don't gesture towards UK Bass, or Dubstep, or House, or any of the permutations therein that are currently en vogue. If anything, the electronics here point toward 1990s Warp and 1970s Berlin, more than 2010s Hyperdub, say (or even 2000s Mute). Luke Turner's review of the album for The Quietus notes the album's resemblance to Radiohead, and that's a good starting point: my first thought when listening to the album was that it resembled nothing so much as an alternative Kid A/Amnesiac. Those are two fine albums, and they mean a lot to me for various personal reasons. I imagine that I wasn't the only suburban kid with dial-up internet who followed up references to Warp Records, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and Autechre in reviews of those albums and began to get an education in an alternative to "alternative rock." In 2012, though, should a band whose reputation rests on its experimental nature get credit for recreating a sound that's at least a decade out of date, regardless of how good the album is? Or, to turn the question around onto the reviewer, if a band releases an album that mines sounds not from the present and produces a record that doesn't really sound like anything else out there right now, do I have any reason to complain?

While the overtly electronic elements are something new for the band, the sounds that point back further to Bowie/Eno collaborations like Low, "Heroes", and Lodger, to the post-punk of The Fall and Joy Division, and to the motorik pulse of Neu! aren't new. Indeed, they're something of a homecoming. After the notoriously poor reception of Liars' second album (my favourite), 2004's hallucinatory witch trial nightmare They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, the band decamped to Berlin and an East German radio station for 2006's Drum's Not Dead, which channeled the percussive, repetitive elements of They Were Wrong into tense art-rock, not a million miles removed from Sonic Youth's EVOL and Sister. Following the krauty proto-punk and noise-rock of 2007's Liars and 2010's Sisterworld, WIXIW feels like both a step forward for the band away from their most traditional work and something of a retreat. In a recent interview with Ian Cohen for Pitchfork, frontman Angus Andrew stressed how much isolation and insularity is a part of the band's creative process, as "when we're in the process of writing and making a record, it's a real, actual, physical effort to block everything out." The results speak for themselves to an extent: this is undeniably a Liars record, but it doesn't feel like it's in conversation with anything outside of itself, and that is its strength and its weakness.

The opening pair of songs, "The Exact Colour of Doubt" and "Octagon," set out much of the territory that WIXIW covers. The former, a gloriously dreamy ballad that floats on glacial synths, some chattering drums straight out of a classic IDM cut, and a few strands of chiming guitar, is as unashamedly pretty as the band has let themselves be, like something from Slowdive's Pygmalion (which I'm convinced is the ur-text for Kid A, but that's a post for another day). Andrew's voice is at once tender and distant, like a lover's voice on the other end of a phone. "Octagon" is "Doubt's" more malevolent sibling, its drums skittering around a punishing kick and a swooping melody framing Andrew's slurred chants. For the rest of the album, this swing between tenderness and intensity defines the songs. First single "No. 1 Against the Rush," a reference to the San Francisco 49ers, splits the difference, suggesting the bleak beauty of Joy Division, though shorn of the kind of vocal histrionics that usually mar such efforts and augmented by a burbling percussion loop that, with its metallic tang, recalls Autoditacker-era Mouse on Mars. "A Ring On Every Finger" swings back toward "Octagon's" intensity and is WIXIW's first reminder that Liars actually started as a dance-punk band, the drums and squiggly synths working up a stiff, nervous robofunk before a strange, largely a capella close. "Ill Valley Prodigies" marries mechanical sounding percussion to a Tom Waits-ian ballad with disconcerting squeaks and squeals hovering around the edges as the first half of the album comes to a close.

The centrepiece, both literally and figuratively, is the title track. Something of a starting point for the album--guitarist/synth player Aaron Hemphill states that the process of coming up with the title, "one that was visually appealing and nonsensical . . . seemed to be good luck. And the song 'WIXIW' came out of it," helped spur the songwriting--it embodies the album's contradictory nature, and the five songs either side of it seem to be in orbit around it: at once recognizably Liars and representative of the new developments stemming from the band's experiments with electronics, "WIXIW" is reminiscent of songs and artists without really sounding like anything else. Initially, its arpeggios call to mind Portishead's "The Rip," but a little over a quarter of the way in the track turns itself inside-out and rides a weirdly droning and insistent backing through at times bizarre instrumental breaks to one of the album's biggest emotional payoffs.

After "WIXIW," the album's second half tails off a little bit, feeling slighter than the strong run of songs in the first half and containing the only real misstep. It opens promisingly with the sly, slinky "His and Mine Sensations," home to one of the record's biggest hooks in its chorus, moving the tenderness of "The Exact Colour of Doubt" into steamier territory (and never failing to call to mind Midnite Vultures for some reason).  From there, WIXIW settles into moodier, more meditative terrain. The brooding "Flood to Flood" calls back to They Were Wrong, though it never quite reaches the wonderfully deranged heights of that album (no chants of "Blood! Blood!" unfortunately), and its tension is kept at a high pitch by "Who Is the Hunter," with its creeping bass and drums and waves of synths. "Brats," though, casts another eye toward the dance floor and its energy is misplaced, breaking up the mood and lacking the nervous energy of "A Ring On Every Finger" to redeem it. The distorted vocals don't work for me--they sound too much like rap-rock knuckleheadedness--and the track serves as more of an annoyance than anything else. Thankfully, "Annual Moon Words" floats out as gorgeously as "The Exact Colour of Doubt" floated in, once again riding some wonderfully simple guitar work to the album's close, a little like "I Can See It (But I Can't Feel It)."

Like the 2012 album it most resembles (in execution if not necessarily in style)--Lotus Plaza's Spooky Action at a Distance--WIXIW offers forty five minutes (minus "Brats") of strong songwriting and interesting music. It feels churlish to complain that it doesn't revolutionize anything, that it isn't an event, no matter how much music in 2012 feels like it needs one. I like this record a great deal; at this point, were the year ending tomorrow, it would almost certainly feature in my top five albums of the year. Nevertheless, I can't help wishing that WIXIW was a little less insular, a little less disconnected from everything outside of Liars. A trendhopping record that aped electronic music's current moves without subtlety would've been a disaster, obviously, but were it able to speak beyond itself, outside of itself, this album might have been a masterpiece. It sums up in a rather neat way a certain strain of indie rock's last decade. If it could make the next step and suggest what lies beyond that sound--what happens when krautrock and Eno/Bowie and post-punk and IDM are no longer the vanguard of what rock music can be--it could be as decade-defining as those reference points were to their own times (and several after). That it isn't, as unfair as it might be to try and hold it to that standard, feels just a little like a let down, especially given how talented Liars are.