That was the week…. Fiona Apple, Cheryl, Metric, The Smashing Pumpkins

July 1, 2012 12:22 pm

A new weekly column having a frankly schizophrenic look at recent releases.

Record of the Week
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.

Seven years pass with nothing and Fiona Apple presents a magic forty-two minutes of cutting honesty as justification. Somehow it explains everything.

Apple has put the oil back in the engine and arrived with a ten-track ghost train. Her fourth album is a series of piano lines as strong and trapping as spider’s silk running beneath her tearing, wavering vocals. Very immediately, startlingly, it’s apparent there isn’t a single artist who could have done this album, nor one you could mistake this for. From the opener, Every Single Night, we’re reminded Miss Apple could be a long lost lover of Tom Waits; “That’s where the pain comes in/like a second skeleton/ trying to fit beneath the skin…” Her writing possesses the same mystery, sharp brained, hawk-eyed observations and bleak, black comedy of Waits while retaining its innate individuality. Although so full of highlights it is practically blinding, The Idler Wheel  is a record that can’t be defined track by track and works best when heard as a coherent body.

Singers at pianos tend to need a band or their songs suffer and become indistinctive splatters of magnolia and blandness and much the same as everything else, but Fiona Apple has a voice of glittering, menacing beauty that would cut drum sticks in half. A band would waste itself on her, she is more of an orchestra than any one person decently has the right to be. Yet the space between her creeping, spectral piano lines (perfectly witnessed on Jonathan) and the beautiful breadth of her voice is filled with whispering choirs of instruments watching from the shadows. Individually, they are barely there but collectively fill up the room, like dust shaken from a piano cover. Every silence is filled invisibly, the music going not only into the ears but down into the lungs as well. The Idler Wheel… takes over, demands complete absorption. But it rewards with songs of potent emotion and stark observations set to a raging, exciting scenery of piano and percussion.

Often her music is referred to as having a jazz persuasion- a lazy way of saying she avoids the obvious. She does so without pretension and the album never slips into the faltering deliberate quirkiness that makes her slew of imitators, Regina Spektor et al, so irritating. One of Apple’s greatest triumphs is her ability to conjure what isn’t there. The truly brilliant Hot Butter raises and rolls like New Orleans marching band, all cheering clarinets and crying trumpets. Except, there is no band; just piano, her voice and a bounding drum. Something within her songs is always giving more, always hinting, always looking sideways at another instrument. It is a peculiar, brilliant talent which makes this album so much more than a quirky piano/voice affair.

The jollity and joviality within these tracks is so often nothing more than irony. This is a true spectacular of pain, intimacy and a bruised being. It is not an album to play every day, but it is magnificent.

Other releases

Cheryl- A Million Lights
Apparently Coldplay love this album. Which provides solid reason to question their judgement. The aural equivalent to a children’s paint-by-numbers set, Cheryl (apparently important enough to forgo a surname) presents carefully plotted emotions and a memorable chorus or two. Some, like the Calvin Harris produced lead single, Call My Name, are catchy. It evokes a cheap flight for a cheap holiday and the accompanying video finds Cheryl dancing like she’s on her seventh or eighth cheap Cosmopolitan. Under the Sun is decent enough and will run around your head with its Olly Murs  channelling MIA-on-a-bad-day vibe. For the most part, though, All of the Lights is flimsy, David Guetta derivative pop which completely lacks substance. Her vocals are thin and the beats they ride aren’t meaty enough to make up for lack-lustre melodies. Girls Aloud didn’t give us five amazing singers but they did a great job for raising smiles and getting arms in the air on the dance floor.
The album is a wasted opportunity; where is the Cheryl who Saturday night audiences adored on X Factor? Where’s the smile, the honesty, the warmth? Nothing here is reminiscent of her and nothing is fresh. Good looks and one or two acceptable ballads do something, but not enough and the rehashed club beat which drives Sexy Den a Mutha is perfect summary of this record; without personality.

Metric- Synthetica
Metric are impossible to talk about with mentioning Emily Haines, their sexy/geeky front woman. Her moves are all sharp shoulders jerking to the bass drum and fluttering eyes but it’s her droll yet heartfelt delivery that make the Canadian quartet the growers they are. They battled New York rock in the early noughties, charmed us with their electo-pop before winning crowds with 2009’s Fantasia. On this release, synths in cinematic proportions echo around the speakers alongside stadium bound guitar lines, while lyrics despair at just about everything. Haines delivers her lines with her heart in plain sight, working the lyrics from a pretentious mess of angst on paper into something real and touching when heard.  The band switch between down-beat ballads, Dreams So Real, to infectious pop, Lost Kitten, Breathing Underwater, which makes the best of both; the ballads seem sadder, more wrenching, while the poppy hooks pump around your head as if carried in the bloodstream. It is an elegant effect, securing the album as something crafted, refined, deliberate.

The band aren’t over shadowed but they are an extravagant frame for Haines. The beats throb and keep even the simplest of songs like Void from being dull, while the guitars manage to both flicker, sparkle, crash and scream all at the same time, with twinkling parts barreling through reverb whilst huge riffs which should have worn out in the mid-80s play beneath them, still sounding fresh and vital. All the while Emily sings with ice in or heart or seduction on her lips.
Much has been made of Lou Reed guesting on The Wanderlust but his appearance adds little. Yet as his crackling voice is swallowed up in the noise, something is being passed. Metric are pushing rock forward, inheriting a legacy. And that’s enough.
Metric have found a formula and yet aren’t formulaic, they sing with bitterness but leave the listener with hope, they  play sharp, metallic songs but are inherently human.  And they’ve made the best record of their career in Synthetica.

The Smashing Pumpkins- Oceania
Billy Corgan has been telling critics how different this album is from other Pumpkins releases. The man is honest; this album lacks the spark, energy and guts that made the band the exciting, necessary outfit they were all those years ago. This said, they aren’t even remotely the same band; Corgan held auditions and apparently chose the least path of resistance- the music is all Billy, with no-one to tell him ‘no.’ The trademarks are still firmly stamped over every track: Corgan’s voice still sounds the same, give or take a little gravel, crushing, pulsating guitars sound out, heavy and solid as a tower block, if tower blocks came on rockets and gave the impression of always racing forward. The new guys are tight, professional, playing to impress their boss.  And within that professionalism, something is lost. There is no life, no real urgency. The songs may run forward but they aren’t going anywhere, as if Corgan was too proud to stop and ask for directions.

There are some redeeming moments, though. When they come it is as relieving as a rain storm breaking a hot, stuffy day. Pinwheels channels  Baba O’Riley’s synth and builds on a gorgeous riff until the middle comes with chiming, delayed guitars and backing vocals falling like waterfalls. The song feels natural, easy, real. The Pumpkins are changing, shaking off the 90s and on a song like this, they sound like a cohesive unit- a band, not a collective. The Chimera offers a lion of a chorus  and the guitars swim in the fuzzbox. Here they’ve made a guttural, raucous radio single. It’s just a shame these moments sit alongside the dull nothingness of the album.

Fans of the Smashing Pumpkins may call this a return to form but for anyone looking for a great modern rock record, there are better ways to spend money.

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