I love Jon Brion. I have loved him for a long time, and my ears will prick up like a little puppy whenever I hear he is involved in anything. That's how I came to give Fiona Apple a fighting chance in my music listening universe. Because if you know me, you know that I shut down whenever a piano-playing chick floats by on the cultural radar. Being that I am one myself, I have pretty high standards which include no whining, no gasping, and no self-pity. I assume all the other ladies are going to suck as bad as Tori Amos, all witchy-poo theatrics and histrionics. If I can't deal with her, I certainly couldn't accommodate some sulky anorexic teenager with big watery blue eyes and a pout that could crush a small city.
So when I had heard that Jon Brion produced Fiona Apple's last album, When the Pawn blah blah blahdee blah... I decided to give it a listen and I actually liked it. For those of you who are not familiar with Mr. Jon Brion, let me give you a quick run-down. Jon Brion has produced such artists as Aimee Mann (his ex-girlfriend -- oh the intrigue!), Rufus Wainwright, and even the new Kanye West; he has created gorgeous movie scores for Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and I Heart Huckabees; he was a founding member of LA power pop super group The Grays; he released his own heart-breakingly delicious solo album called Meaningless; but most of all he is the most fascinating, multi-talented instrumentalist I have ever seen. Jon Brion plays every single Friday night at the Largo in LA, and if you ever find yourself in LA on a Friday night, it is imperative that you witness what this man can do. It's truly astounding.
I have seen him go around the stage and lay parts down on drums, guitar, bass, and organ, using some kind of sampler/looping device, then sit down at the piano and play and sing along as if there's an entire band backing him up. He can play any ridiculous request thrown at him from the audience "Bohemian Rhapsody as played by Les Paul!" and he can just sit there and write a song on the spot. It's heavenly to watch, because he's also adorable, has a wonderful voice, and he'll bring whatever hipster musical superstar is lurking in the back corner up to jam with him or cover some old jazz standard or Hollies tune. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of all genres of music and can imitate them perfectly, while throwing his own sweet spin on anything. He'll play for hours, take a break, come back for more, all the while with a huge smile on his face and the audience in the palm of his hand. I've never seen anything like it, and probably never will. I hope he plays there forever. He's the only redeeming thing about Los Angeles.
But, I digress.
One night while I was watching him, transfixed as usual, there was this skinny, tragic-looking figure waiting patiently by the side of the stage. She looked like she was about to cry, or disintegrate. Eventually he brought her out onstage and she pounded the hell out of a new song called "Better Version of Me." Yes it was Fiona. And she rocked it.
So now there's been this big hubbub about her latest album and why it took so long to come out. First she recorded it with Brion producing, then the rumor mill started that Sony didn't hear a single on it and shelved the whole project. Then she re-recorded it several years later with a new producer and now it has finally come out. In the meantime there was some grassroots gang called "Free Fiona" that was protesting the label for rejecting the original album, then it was leaked onto the internet, and now Fiona is coming out in interviews and saying it was her choice to re-do the album cause she wasn't happy with it. No hard feelings toward Brion, though Brion isn't talking. It's a big, crazy spin zone and who knows what the truth really is, but the album is pretty good!
The first song and the last song are the best songs. And maybe it's a coincidence that those are the two Brion-produced tracks on the album, or maybe he just has impeccable taste. The first song, "Extraordinary Machine" has an old-timey jazz delivery and a clanging bell on it that I love. I've never heard a bell used quite like that, signaling the rounds of a psychological boxing match, and it's one more reason to love that producer man. Fiona's singing is unbelievable, especially on that first track. She may appear a sullen figure, but her voice is strong and artful and vastly entertaining.
Most songs on the album tread the territory of bad men that pissed her off, which gets pretty old, but at least she comes at it from varying angles and perspectives, trying to mix it up. Good for her. But perhaps she needs some more life experiences to write about, cause really -- who cares about love? She does have a way with a clever phrase that is simultaneously self-deprecating and arrogant. And she tries to take her often predictable piano-pounding into uncharted territories of chord progression and melody. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but it's a really rollicking album to listen to, and she sounds like she's having a ball.
"Oh Well" is a soaring, gospel-tinged number that throws Alicia Keys' warmed over cheese-whiz to the floor. "Better Version of Me" (which I constantly confuse with "Best Imitation of Myself" by Ben Folds -- another great self-reinvention song) roars and rumbles with some Mensa-worthy wordplay, and there's a lovely break in the middle of the album with "Parting Gift," which is just solo piano and voice. I kinda wish there was more of that, to give the ear a rest from all the thumpity-thumpa. Mike Elizondo did an admirable job as the pinch-producer, and although he brought in some real heavy-hitting drummers and such to make the whole thing groove, he still left lots of whimsical touches and oddball sounds and textures. The last song, "Waltz (Better Than Fine)," starts out small, with some little homespun words of affirmation:
If you don't have a song to sing, you're ok
you know how to get along humming
if you don't have a date, celebrate
go out and sit on the lawn and do nothing
cause it's just what you must do and nobody does it anymore.
The song builds so beautifully in its arrangement it leaves you aching when it's done.
I just spent the last hour driving around in the car with my friend Miranda, playing this album for her, both of us marveling over how much we want to hate Fiona. She's just a nuclear missile of talent and good looks, and it's nauseating. But what can you do? She's an extraordinary machine.