When The Pawn Hits...
Fiona Apple
(Clean Slate/Epic)
Sublime Silliness
SonicNet  · 
Nov '99

by Kevin John

We hear her next album will be accompanied by several CDs' worth of footnotes. 

OK, so the full title is: When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win the Whole Thing 'Fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won't Matter, 'Cuz You'll Know That You're Right.

I briefly debated typing the entire 90-word title of Fiona Apple's sophomore album, though in the end, as you can see, I decided that Apple deserved to have her pretensions swallowed whole. More than any other Lilith Fair type, she's forged an appealingly obnoxious and grandiose public persona. I dug her MTV Music Video Awards acceptance speech — not for its deep insight into the performer/audience relationship but for Fiona's stubborn insistence that she be heard.

In any case, When the Pawn Hits... is so good that the next album could have a 900-word title and I wouldn't even scratch my goatee. Sure, the title is bunkum, as are most of Apple's lyrics. But practically every song here is fitted with some sort of hook or clever twist that makes it compelling. There's the fuzzed-out guitar riff that emphasizes the fact that she's not afraid to make a "Mistake"  or the oboe figure toward the end of "Fast As You Can" that suddenly steers the song in an entirely new direction.

Most of the poesy turns out to be PJ Harvey–lite — you know, full of unfulfilled desire, vengeful harridans and the like. It's not too far a crawl from Harvey's "I'll make you lick my injuries" ("Rid of Me") to "You wanna lick my wounds" from Apple's "Limp." OK, so Fiona doesn't dig too deep. But she compensates for this shallowness with plenty of hooks that make this album far more varied than the homogenous wispiness of Tidal.

Even more impressive, there's often a corresponding detail in the lyrics that pokes fun at her propensity for transforming the piano parlor into a therapist's office. In "Get Gone," she advises an ex to move on with his life yet finds herself "sitting singing again, singing again, etc." while insistent piano glissandos reinforce her irritation. And you roll your eyes at a line like "the dove of hope began its downward slope" until you realize that it's just a "Paper Bag."  And soon you find yourself soaking in the song's lush Bacharach-like melody as Fiona mourns a hopeless conquest.

Such, well, silly qualities make Apple's songs more accessible than those of, say, PJ Harvey. And it's important for an artist like Apple to continue to win over new fans because if Tidal was her "For You" and When the Pawn Hits ... her "Prince," then chances are good that Apple's next album will be her "Dirty Mind" — i.e., her first masterpiece. What this supposed future masterpiece might sound like, I can't say, though I hope it's more abstract musically. Every song on When the Pawn Hits ... is too beholden to the pianistics of the sensitive singer/songwriter. So some unhinging would be nice. For now, though, it's filled with more promise than the new one from Paula Cole. Or the one from Me'Shell NdegeOcello. Or Janice Robinson. Or ...