Seven years after 2005's terrific Extraordinary Machine, Fiona Apple returns, filtering a similarly intense batch of tortured-romance songs through a radically altered sound.
"Every single night's a fight with my brain ... I just want to feel everything," Apple asserts on the opening track/single "Every Single Night," but as with all of her best music, The Idler Wheel is Wiser ... is far more than mere raw confessional. Apple transforms diary sketches with rare musicality and wit, with her musical-theater piano at the center, her dynamic vocals at various times grunting, whispery, or high-stepping, and most of all with a sometimes wry perspective that gives her songs an observational spirit.
Her take on romantic complication is often laced with knowing humor: "I made it to the dinner date/My teardrops seasoned every plate," she cracks on "Valentine." Other times she's open-hearted. "My ills are articulate/My woes are granular," she acknowledges, but on "Jonathan" she looks to love as a respite from self-examination: "Take me on the train/Kiss me while I calculate/And calibrate, and heaven's sake/Don't make me explain/Just tolerate my little fist tugging on your forest-chest."
Working without producer Jon Brion this time out, Apple and co-producer Charley Drayton craft a sound that relies almost entirely on Apple's voice and piano and Drayton's inventive percussion. Where Extraordinary Machine was ornate and jazzy, The Idler Wheel is stormy and lo-fi. This is usually effective — witness the ghostly shudder of "Every Single Night" — but at times becomes monotonous (the drone and clack of "Regret").
The album ends on a high note, with Apple on "Hot Knife" seemingly ready to embrace something new and hopeful, but even then she wonders if she's just too much: "I'm a hot knife. He's a pat of butter," she sings.
If Apple's music suggests a collision between confessional folk and Broadway, I can't help but perceive her in cinematic terms: She's like Barbara Stanwyck's quick-witted seductress in The Lady Eve crossed with Gena Rowlands' overwhelmed wife in A Woman Under the Influence: She needs that man, per Stanwyck, "like the ax needs the turkey," but she's rattled — and sometimes overwhelmed — by the romantic rush herself. — Chris Herrington
So the story goes: "Hip-hop was set out in the dark/They used to do it out in the park." But what if, instead of cutting up disco records to create beats and breaks, hip-hop's block-party-toasting mid-'70s origin had occurred in the discotheques themselves?
That's sort of what Azealia Banks sounds like. This now 21-year-old Harlem MC is far from the first to unite rap with straight-up dance-club music, but her hybrid feels unusually assured. And on her best music — which means "212," which was arguably 2011's most exhilarating single and which is the cornerstone of this four-song, 16-minute introductory EP — Banks gives off the being-born feel of a new-breed Roxanne Shante, the teen rapper who double-dutched out of Queensbridge back in the mid-'80s with a similar mix of ferocity and playfulness.
On the title track, Banks mixes hard and soft, her bubbling vocal matched by the chopped-up disco beat, with stray boasts — "Elite rap bitch/I gotta send that beat back quick" — floating out of the hypnotic mix. On "Van Vogue," Banks weaves around a glitched-up track that deploys dog-bark snaps, sung refrains, and chopped-and-screwed asides amid its heartbeat-like insistency. And the closing "Licorice" is more conversational and rooted in dance-floor R&B.
Then there's that aforementioned "212." If you're not among the 23 million and counting who've watched the delirious black-and-white video on YouTube, stop reading and go treat yourself. Here Banks flaunts a studied Valley Girl drawl and brings potty-mouth pop back to Little Richard territory not via euphemism but by saying what she wants so fast that her genital-specific commands are rendered nearly abstract. — Chris Herrington