As we reach the end of another paltry year of contemporary purchases for me and the end of year lists are pouring in full of albums I’ve never heard of by outfits I’ve never heard of, I’m more unsure than ever of the worth of the process. You see, I could easily come up with a list of THE top ten albums from this year but it would include the majority of current albums I’ve got to know well over the last 12 months. If I were to post said list, I’m sure any reader would assume I had devoured far more music than I actually have and would not realise that my number 10 would represent a scraping of the barrel rather than a glittering jewel plucked from a huge vault of varied and comprehensive listening. At the other end of the spectrum are those lists that are so long they beggar belief – how can anyone get properly acquainted with 100+ albums in a year? Yet you regularly see lists of this length made by a single person! Do they do anything other than make lists while sitting around their stereo all night long? Probably not. Either that or (whisper it) they don’t really know what they’re talking about.
That said, it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that I don’t avidly follow the lists at this time of year scouring them to find that undiscovered gem I had previously overlooked or been unaware of. And as this is a time of giving as much as receiving it’s only right that I do my bit to contribute to the end of year thing. So…just in case you’ve lived in a cave over the last 12 months, have not followed the reviews or just think you happen to dislike this sort of thing, Fiona Apple released an album in June…and that’s my album of 2012 (and I’m fairly confident about this). It’s called: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (not sure these album titles do her any favours). I would urge you to listen to it. You may well find it not to your taste, and that’s fine, but I think you should definitely check it out. I say this, not because I’ve listened to hundreds of new albums this year but because I think it’s a remarkable album – brutal and subtle, always interesting and unsettling even if it veers tantalisingly close to ‘kooky’ territory at times (too close for some, perhaps). This is the first Fiona Apple album I’ve owned but it will probably not be the last.
The last time I heard a solo female artist sound this confident and instinctive on a record was on St Vincent’s second album Actor. The two albums don’t sound that alike really but they share an honesty and a lack of self-consciousness that enable the songs to reach parts that more considered records (see Strange Mercy) do not. But whereas Actor has moments of sonic assault, it seems to me that The Idler Wheel is all about space, momentum and the balance between simplicity and complexity which seem to coexist simultaneously on many of the songs. Check out Periphery, Johnathan, Werewolf, Every Single Night…that’s practically half the album already! All these songs have such spartan instrumentation, often just a piano plonking away every now and then – it’s the melody lines and Apple’s (exquisite) singing that lift the song from the ordinary to the frequently extraordinary. That and the astonishing drumming that reaches it’s zenith on the album’s breathtaking closer Hot Knife which, for the most part, is just a drum, Apple and her sister Maude Maggart. This was a joker track (songs that we have to listen to properly..although you are allowed to check the football scores during them, apparently) for which nobody needed to be instructed not to speak! It’s a cracking end to a cracking album and if you can find a record from 2012 that I (and my family for that matter) prefer you’ll be doing well. Maybe the answer lies in those end of year lists. Then again, maybe not!
Nick listened: I bought Fiona Apple’s debut album many, many years ago, I think on the advice of my older brother after enjoying her cover of Across The Universe. I quite liked it, as I recall, but haven’t played it in many years – I suspect it was a victim of the post-adolescent indie boy’s fear of women. I’ll be revisiting it soon to reasses.
Because this was awesome; several times during the playback I said “this is a jazz album!” and, with its minimal arrangements, sense of musical freedom and unusual chords, it certainly felt closer to jazz than mainstream pop. Apple’s vocals, almost scatting at points, add to the impression. I was intrigued and beguiled by The Idler Wheel, and I’ll be picking it up pretty soon, I think. PS. I did indeed pick up a copy, last week in The Drift; I also picked up Ekstasis by Julia Holter, which Tom played a track from. An expensive week’s listening!
Graham listened: Unfortunately I am a bit of a ‘Kooky Monster’ and offer short shrift to those that bend, rather than play within or completely break, the rules. An interesting listen but it fell outside my my boundaries on to the stony land of stuff I don’t try hard enough to appreciate.
Rob listened: I had Fiona Apple filed somewhere only slightly to the left of Alanis Morissette and due North of Liz Phair. To be honest, all I really knew about her was that she used to be a bit poppy, had gone a bit more left-field and kept getting mentions on Pitchfork, although i’d never really unravelled whether this was because they dug her or because she was having some sort of extended public breakdown.
I’m so pleased Tom sorted all that out for me. ‘The Idler Wheel’ clearly deserves all the plaudits it has received. Somehow both rich and sparse, it feels like creature who’s internal structures you can see working mysteriously away whilst it lives and breathes. We talked about how lazy it feels to compare female singer songwriters only to other female singer songwriters. To be fair, we’re probably equally lazy when it comes to comparing male performers too. I wonder, however, whether the reason we find ourselves invoking St Vincent and Merrill Garbus and Joanna Newsom when we listen to a record like this, is that women just happen to be making the most challenging and inventive music at the moment?
Loved it, will buy it.