Fiona Apple comes into bloom on 'Tidal' follow-up

by Joe Manera | 11/17/99 6:00am

First off, the title: ignore it. You know which one I'm talking about--the ninety-word chess metaphor. All unnecessary enjambment, Maya envy and portentous allusion ... you really had us worried, Fiona. Please don't do it again.

I'm bringing this up for a reason. Allow me to play the Ghost of Christmas Could-Have-Been for a moment. Young girl, prodigiously talented, gets ideas. BIG ideas. She sets these ideas into words--lots of them. She immerses herself in Tori Amos. Girl gets twee and precious. The result? "Supposed Former Infatuation Fiona," this year's overblown PMS manifesto.

What a welcome surprise, then, that "When The Pawn ," rank title and all, is button-bright and better than "Tidal" in almost every imaginable way.

Let's start with those improved pipes. Face it, it's why we all payed attention to this Fiona Apple creature in the first place. In interviews, her strident commentary was usually stamped with her age, but the minute she opened her mouth to sing she sounded twice her 22 years. While Jewels and Sarahs can only muster wistful prettiness, it was clear that this young woman could deliver.

And now, miracle of miracles, that voice is even better. If Apple strained to sound world-wise and world-weary on "Tidal," she's completely in her element here. Her performances on "Pawn" are husky, jazzy, deep and rich like black forest cake.

The songs don't hurt, either. Credit Apple and producer Jon Brion (Rufus Wainwright) for taking sidewinder swerves into unexplored territory. Where "Tidal" tended to languish in minor key melodies, "Pawn" is diverse and generally more up-tempo. The Fiona team apparently took a cue from her only real radio hit, "Criminal." Good move, bad girl.

It's impossible to over-emphasize what these improvements dovetail into. No one could accuse "Tidal" of sounding stiff and inhuman, but the more aggressive and ambitious sounds on "Pawn" pulsate like living, breathing things. With a snaky,committed singer at the helm, the results are smashing.

Generally speaking, the magic this time around is of the wide-eyed grin variety. Look at the atypically beaming photo of Fiona that graces the cover for proof. Apple is less vituperative here, and when she plays shrew ("A Mistake," "Get Gone") she admonishes herself more than she does any philandering beaus.

What we are left with is a performer remarkably in tune with her own world. Miraculously, Apple is self-analytical without being self-absorbed. She admits to not being the pot of gold at the end of anyone's rainbow; "Fast as you can" is the speed at which she recommends potential romantic prospects flee from her.

As if there weren't enough surprises already, our vegan soapboxer has seemingly sworn off of pity altogether. She's clearly digging her life now, or at least parts of it. In "I Know," she gives us lantern lectures about her undying devotion to a boyfriend ("And you can use my skin / To bury secrets in").

She also uses that skin to hide a tender heart, apparently. Lest anyone think she's gone all carnivore hedonist on us, Apple still knows how to play tragic chanteuse. "Love Ridden" is an affecting ballad along the "Never is a Promise" vein: "Only kisses on the cheek from now on / And in a little while we'll only have to wave," she mourns, outlining changes in affection. Nothing wrong with a little gravitas.

Fortunately, heartbreak always settles into wisdom in Fiona's world, so all is not lost. "I thought it was a bird, but it was just a paper bag," she muses at one point, skipping the stratosphere and settling for astro-turf.

This last line goes a long way towards explaining Apple's appeal. Pretensions aside, she's head-over-feet grounded. While artists that strike gold the first time out tend to return with the same old tricks, Fiona is tight, and she's tightening her craft. These songs aren't the shrill musings of a spiteful harpy. They're warm and developed. At a trim 42 minutes, there's no flab. "Pawn" is Fiona premium.

All this, and she's still budding. Maya would be proud.