Fiona Apple Blossoms … Sonic Youth’s Millennial Boom

Fiona Apple Blossoms

In 1996, amid talk of girl power and waifdom, a tiny 18-year-oldsinger-songwriter-pianist named Fiona Apple made her debut with an album called Tidal . Although at first taken as a marketing team’s capitalization on the Kate Moss moment, Ms. Apple soon revealed herself as a top-drawer popster; hit singles like “Criminal,” which gave boy-girl relations a sexy jurisprudential spin, and “Sleep to Dream,” with its wonderful pop adaptation of hip-hop rhythms, saw to that. But in no time, it seemed, Ms. Apple disappeared, heard from only on the Pleasantville soundtrack, where she delivered the Beatles’ “Across the Universe” as a lucidly sensual art song.

Now she’s back, with a fierce follow-up. Like so much about Ms. Apple, it looks fishy on paper–not least because the title, a rehearsal of Ms. Apple’s own mantra, is 90 words long. Uncut, it reads: 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 .

Ms. Apple has not exactly expanded the scope of her interests; as on Tidal , these songs focus on romantic crises examined with a nearly morbid care. Ms. Apple, moreover, writes and sings in highly flown yet earthy ways, her alto seemingly caught inside a bluesy husk. Outbursts like “He don’t give a shit about me” or “I’m full as a tick” pack a punch as calculated as they are effective. On When the Pawn , Ms. Apple more or less invents her own romantic fight game.

She and her producer, Jon Brion, whose work is dazzlingly fresh throughout the album, are in bravura control–from the musical arrangement to the dramatic delivery to the overall design and conception of Ms. Apple’s 10-song suite.

Ms. Apple opens the album with “On the Bound,” a midtempo piece in which she remains pessimistic and he–whose head she craves on her lap “one more time”–is all she needs. Mr. Brion orchestrates the tune with a Frankenstein lurch to the rhythms and a Carl Stalling lilt to the strange interpolations of levity that swing in. The song is not about Ms. Apple or her boyfriend, who you can’t help thinking is a touch on the wolfish side; instead, it’s a sonic explanation of the troubling world they think they inhabit. Next, the tempo speeds up, saws around, marginally brightens, as Ms. Apple asks for forgiveness for her “distance.” A rhythmic and dynamic pressure point–an effective technique Ms. Apple and Mr. Brion repeat and refine in succeeding songs–occurs when, midsong, she takes off on the line “Now you have it, so baby tell me what’s the word?” During such moments, no one in pop music seems to have more musical grip than Ms. Apple.

The record never stops. On “Love Ridden,” as strings sting and caress, Ms. Apple observes that when she no longer calls someone baby, it can spell tragedy. On “Limp,” personal rage unwinds exactly to thrilling rhythms. On “Fast as You Can,” the music jumpcuts, and Ms. Apple, as her singing scats and deepens and then heightens again, earns the right to sing the words, “I’m blooming within.” On “The Way Things Are,” with a swayingly melodic chorus that could make it an enormous hit, Ms. Apple chooses to stay put: “So keep on calling me names,” she sings, “keep on, keep on/ And I’ll keep kicking the crap till it’s gone.”

Then there’s “I Know,” the most distinguished soul ballad in years. Calling herself a “crowbar,” Ms. Apple offers: “And you can use my skin/ To bury your secrets in.” She promises to wait by the backstage door. Then the album with the 90-word title ends.

–James Hunter

Sonic Youth’s Millennial Boom

Sonic Youth–Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley–give this century a swell kiss-off with SYR 4: Goodbye 20th Century . The group, formed in 1981, really is this century’s “last” rock band–rock as in “electric guitar.” The Youth’s howling, dissonant, distorted guitar music has always begun at the point where Jimi Hendrix’s feedback left off. Strangely enough, this is the group’s most “traditional” work yet–a two-CD set of “covers” of this century’s most notorious modern composers, from John Cage to Steve Reich to–say it isn’t true–Yoko Ono. Her 1961 composition, “Voice Piece for Soprano,” is “sung” by Ms. Gordon and Mr. Moore’s 5-year-old daughter Coco, who hollers her head off for 12 seconds.

Sonic Youth also tackle minimalism with Steve Reich’s 1968 composition, “Pendulum Music.” In a 1999 reprint of William Duckworth’s collection of conversations with experimental composers, Talking Music , Mr. Reich denies he’s a minimalist. He claims the M-word is “more pejorative than descriptive …” Pejorative or not, “Pendulum Music” is a sadistically minimal duet between rhythmic feedback and what sounds like a hurt dog yelping. In another minimal tune, or meditative, to use a favorite buzzword of composer Pauline Oliveros, is the Youth’s rendition of her “Six for New Time.” The “song” sounds like horses rhythmically clomping over a wash of electronic static while Mr. Moore whispers, “The queen approaches the throne,” and a crescendo of feedback begins.

How can you not be tongue-in-cheek describing pieces that are simultaneously nonsensical and profound? This duality is most evident in works by two composers who are covered more than once, Christian Wolff (two pieces) and Mr. Cage (three). Mr. Wolff was a progeny of Cage’s when the former was just a squirt in junior high. It’s hard to tell their work apart. There are no melodies. Guitars noodle. Percussion is beaten or tapped. There’s much curious electric bleating. Some chimes. Attempts at hip-hop scratching. The longest piece, Cage’s half-hour-long “Four6″ is long enough that the noises become narration. Why bother with blotter acid? Drop a tab of Cage instead!

How much of this music is Cage’s versus Sonic Youth’s? Is the band even following a score? In his book, Mr. Duckworth discusses “classical notation” with Cage as they go over a Cage piece called “Atlas Eclipticalis.” “Sometimes [notation] works and sometimes it doesn’t,” Mr. Cage says.

Now, I’ve seen the score to “Atlas Eclipticalis.” I’ve even playedit. Back in the mid-1970′s, my high school band took part in a John Cage festival at the Cranbrook Academy of Art outside Detroit. As I remember, Cage’s score instructed me to stand anywhere in the auditorium I wanted and periodically blat my trombone. The other 85 musicians had similar freedom. Gradually during the hourlong performance, all of us abandoned the score and wandered around playing whatever we wanted. Some majorettes even streaked (70′s lingo for running buck naked) across the stage wearing John Cage masks. The composer himself was in the audience. Did Cage jump from his chair and cry, “This is not the piece I wrote!”? No.

He sat, laughing his head off. Maybe there was Eastern mystical significance to this composition. Maybe it was fraudulent. But I will remember how invigorating that Cage-inspired chaos was until my grave (or Y2K). A similar sublime experience is found listening to much of Goodbye 20th Century . Kronos Quartet, roll over! Sonic Youth has stolen your cultural mantle.

–David Bowman