on NY Rock:

Review of
Fiona's 1999
When the
Pawn Hits...

(Nov. 1999)

Fiona Apple Suffers for Her Sins (and So Do We) by Otto Luck  

November 1997

Fiona Apple's trajectory to fame appears to be taking her where few teenage girls have gone before. Consider this: At age 18, she landed a recording contract with a subsidiary of Sony Records. By age 19, she watched her debut album, Tidal climb the charts with few stops to refuel along the way. On the month of her twentieth birthday, she received an award for best new artist from MTV. At this rate, by the time Fiona can legally drink in New York City, she'll be able to buy half the bars in town.

Apple is currently the rage of just about every rock critic on the planet; they're clearly gaga over the brooding ingenue. If the husky, lovelorn voice doesn't get you, if the waif-like appearance and the big blue eyes don't melt your heart, well then, the much-publicized account of her rape at age 12 certainly will. It's a formula made in heaven. The record execs at Sony must be coming in their Calvin Kliens over this one.

So what could one possibly say about Fiona Apple that would remotely resemble any form of criticism. Try this: She's a pretentious and, on occasion, excruciatingly silly human being. Her acceptance speech at the '97 MTV gala – currently known in media circles as the "go with yourself" sermon – has got to go down as one of the most ridiculous soliloquies ever to be witnessed at an MTV Awards event (which is pretty amazing in light of the competition she has).

Furthermore, her constant references to Maya Angelou as her biggest influence are, well, pretty annoying. (My biggest influence used to be Lester Bangs but I've recently switched to Jean Paul Sartre – so who's cooler, Fiona or me?)

For a full text of Fiona's speech, I'm afraid you'll have to contact the sad and brainless institution known as MTV directly. I would try to summarize the speech, but I'm not sure what the hell she was talking about. I do remember that instead of thanking her crew "like everyone else does," she opted to call the rock world "bullshit," after which she recommended that her fans not bother to wear the same clothing as her (which, judging by her outfit that evening, may not have been all that much of a temptation to begin with).

Fortunately, Fiona did mention her producer, Andy Slater, which is a damn good thing because a lot of Tidal’s success has to do with the man's production. Slater, who has worked with artists such as the Wallflowers and Lenny Kravitz, pulls out an amazing assortment of gems from the production grab-bag to create textures and passages that are innovative, unpredictable, and that work like charms in bringing the music to life.

In all fairness, the real star of Tidal, of course, is Fiona Apple, and there's no denying the wealth of talent that she possesses. Her voice is a pretty incredible instrument, a smoldering and melancholy alto that belies her years. (It's been likened to Nina Simone, whom I've never heard but, I imagine, probably has a smoldering and melancholy alto.)

Her songwriting is top-notch and sometimes even closes in on brilliant. Witness songs such as "Shadowboxer" and "Criminal," in which she sings, "I want to suffer for my sins," an ironic line coming from someone with such a young and innocent appearance. The MTV speech notwithstanding, I don't imagine she's got much sinning under her belt.

Such is the mystery of Fiona Apple: On one hand she's brilliant, on the other she's brainless. Perhaps it's the years. About this, she says, "Five years from now I'm probably going to look back on the things I'm doing and cringe." Yes, Fiona you probably will.

So am I being unfair – perhaps so. Or perhaps I'm just being honest, an approach that few rock journalists or rock publications venture to incorporate into their text these days. Fiona Inc. is most likely going to get bigger and who wants to rub such a pretty girl the wrong way anyway. And then there's Sony – I'm sure they'll be less than thrilled with this article. But like Fiona said in her legendary speech, the recording business is "bullshit." I guess I agree.

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