With her 1996 major-label debut Tidal, Fiona Apple grabbed the spotlight away from reigning piano princess Tori Amos, slammed it to the ground, stomped on it, shook it, and turned it into a kaleidoscope. Even though Apple went on to release only three more studio discs in the 16 years since, including her new one, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do (Clean Slate/Epic), the world of the piano/vocal singer/songwriter has never been the same.
The seven years between Extraordinary Machine and The Idler Wheel is Apple’s longest stretch, although not her longest title. That honor belongs to 1999’s acclaimed 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.
Apple sounded wise beyond her 19 (or so) years on Tidal, so imagine what a few more years has done not only to her distinctive voice, but also to her already considerable songwriting skills. On the opener “Every Single Night” she tinkles and twinkles and chants, whereas Apple alternates between recitation and wail on the revved-up “Daredevil.” The dark and moody “Valentine” is unexpectedly catchy. The dusty waltz of “Jonathan” finds Apple using her “little fist” to tug on his “forest-chest,” and “Left Alone” rolls out an irresistible boogie-woogie. There’s nothing regrettable about either “Regret” or “Anything We Want,” both of which make fascinating use of percussion. But it’s the album’s closer, the steamy “Hot Knife,” with its sharp wordplay and unique production, that makes this platter sizzle.
By the time the more prolific Regina Spektor arrived with Soviet Kitsch, her 2004 major-label debut, Tori Amos’s once-vivid star had begun to dim and Fiona Apple had become the official touchstone for piano-based female singer/songwriters. But as different as Apple was from Amos, that’s how dissimilar Spektor was from Apple. Take “Sailor Song,” on which Spektor can be heard singing “Mary Anne’s a bitch,” over and over, as an example. But it was on 2006’s Begin to Hope, her most accessible and pleasing recording, that Spektor became a full-fledged star.
What We Saw from the Cheap Seats (Sire) comes closest to capturing the same energy, although it falls short of achieving the same masterpiece status. The luminous “Small Town Moon” sets the radiant tone. But you have to get through “Oh Marcello” and “Don’t Leave Me,” both of which quote liberally from pop-music history, before you get to the exquisite tearjerkers “Firewood” and “How.” Both songs reveal a refreshing level of maturity in Spektor’s considerable talents.
The exhilarating “All the Rowboats,” which deserves to be a hit single, is a perfect example of Spektor’s unusual perspective. That unique viewpoint is also on display in “Ballad of a Politician.” The aptly named “Open” takes an unusual turn in the middle, incorporating vocal tricks that would make Yoko Ono proud, while closing track “Jessica” features producer Mike Elizondo on acoustic guitar, illuminating another aspect of Spektor’s versatility.
Produced by Mark Ronson, Rufus Wainwright’s soulful Out of the Game (Decca) is a far cry from his soul-baring and mournful All Days Are Night: Songs for Lulu. Easily Wainwright’s most potentially and consistently commercial album since 2001’s Poses or Release the Stars, Out of the Game finds the gay singer/songwriter at the very top his game. Wainwright’s sense of humor is on exhibit throughout, beginning with the title track on which he makes witty observations on the behavior of gay men younger than his own 39 years. Name-dropper “Rashida” effortlessly updates vintage soul, Rufus-style, complete with wailing diva-backing vocals. The retro R&B vibe continues on the sexy “Barbara,” as well as the swirling “Bitter Tears,” and the full-on funk of “Perfect Man,” which deserves to be remixed for club play.
To Ronson’s credit, Wainwright doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. To the contrary, he is very definitely the central focus all the way through the disc. Playing less piano and more guitar than usual, the Rufus we have all come to know and love can be heard loud and clear on “Welcome to the Ball,” “Respectable Dive,” “Sometimes You Need,” and the amazing and utterly gay “Montauk.”
Gregg Shapiro interviewed Jay Brannan for the August issue of OutSmart magazine.