An Apple With A Bite 
New York Daily News  · 
Nov 7 '99

by Jim Farber

Singer's second album is a sure-fire hit 

FIONA APPLE, "When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts . . ." (Clean Slate/Epic)

Here's a warning to the male population of the world: Woo Fiona Apple at your own risk. On the sultry prodigy's second album, "When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts…," Apple tells one potential lover: "I couldn't take the embrace of a real romance/I'd race right through it." 

In another song, she announces: "Please forgive me/for my distance/my shame is manifest/in my resistance/to your love."

And in yet another: "Baby run, free yourself of me as fast as you can."

At least you can't say she's giving mixed messages.

Apple's dismissive comments aren't the only perspectives presented on her piercing new record, but they're the most interesting. Few musicians write relationship songs from the rejector's point of view. But Apple digs right in, reminding listeners that there's as much potential pain in dumping someone as in being dumped.

Apple's uncommon comments are just one of the album's selling points. She also writes adventurously jazzy melodies and uncommonly clear lyrics, matched to an inventive production style. 

The new album clarifies the approach Apple started on her 1996 multi-platinum debut, "Tidal," a record which established her as the most promising new female singer-songwriter of the decade.

When Apple first came on the scene, she drew attention for looking like a 19-year-old waif while sounding like a 39-year-old woman. Her smokey instrument suggested a modern Sarah Vaughn.

While most every new female singer-songwriter gets compared to Joni Mitchell, Apple alone deserved the attention. She never succumbs to the pretentiousness of Tori Amos, the preciousness of Sarah McLachlan, the traditionalism of Sheryl Crow or the affectation of Alanis Morissette.

Giving Odd

Apple's new melodies provide more evidence of her special talent. A song like the opening, "On the Bound," sounds like a squirmy waltz, while "Limp" is languid and unsettling. To keep things surprising, Apple regularly interrupts her songs with sudden changes in pace and eccentric switches in key.

A key part of the album's oddness comes from its producer, Jon Brion, a wizard of sonic manipulation. In "Fast As You Can," Brion makes the keyboards whir, while he puts the wheeze of old 78-rpm records into "Paper Bag." He gives the guitar in "A Mistake" a unique squeak, sounding like a sarcastic take on George Harrison's famous six-string from "Across the Universe."

As on the star's debut LP, Apple and Brion make rich use of the keyboard known as the chamberlain. It sounds like a piano possessed by the Devil.

Apple's vocal technique has also matured. You can hear how much in a song like "Get Gone," where Brion strips away everything but her piano and a swish of percussion, pushing her voice to the front of the mix. 

The star's lyrics show a similar move ahead. In one song, she writes, "You use my skin to bury your secrets in," while another finds her singing, "A fail to kiss is a fail to cope." Elsewhere, she looks at a guy "with the focus I give to my birthday candles."

Ordering Inward

To give the album forward motion, Apple programmed it to begin with her most confused number and end with her most assured. Even that first number has something rare. During "On the Bound," she chases a guy with full awareness that catching him won't make her feel whole. At the close, in the song "I Know," she's confident enough to believe a guy loves her even though he has another girlfriend.

It's a complex thing to carry off, but Apple nails it. She has the ability to give clarity to nuanced feelings, and match them to music that could come from no one else. Among her generation, filled with cynical and fluffy musicians, Apple has both the ambition to reach for something notable and the talent to realize it.