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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

Fiona Apple

Clean Slate

Live in Concert

Natalie Merchant

Elektra

MTV Unplugged

Alanis Morissette

Maverick

Fiona, Natalie, Alanis: unique voices, unique looks, unique talents to divide the record-buying masses into vicious camps of adoration and nausea. One chanteuse will appear completely nude in her videos and hurl childish Zenlike warnings upon her giddy fans, while another will berate her followers with a dandelion-crown idealism that too often plays like a stern lecture from Mother Nature. But perhaps nothing can set off the monologue jokes quicker than a self-indulgent 90-word album title that wouldn’t pass muster at a makeshift open-mike night in your Cousin Larry’s basement. Thanks solely to the lousy Lewis Carrollian

gobbledygook scrawled on the cover

of her new album, Fiona Apple’s When the Pawn… (bleh: just re-read the goddamn thing at the top of the page) makes a disastrous first impression. If you’re a fan, you fear for the worst: that phony temptress Jewel finally got to the “bad, bad girl” introduced on Apple’s 1996 debut, Tidal.

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Have no fear: All shoddy decorative verse aside, Apple isn’t just bad on When the Pawn…—she’s downright wicked. She may be wildly in love and shacking up with Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson (could there be a hipper couple?), but Apple can still summon the heartache of love lost by pounding the shit out of her poor piano—and conjuring complex, multitextured pop in the process. The album’s best track, “Fast as You Can”—Apple’s warning shot to her lover that she’s entirely capable of going batshit wacko at any minute—sounds like an acid-freaked Vince Guaraldi scoring the new holiday favorite It’s Only a Speedball, Charlie Brown. In the midst of frantic ivory smashing, tripped-up percussion, and rapid phrasing—”I may be soft in your palm but I’ll soon grow/Hungry for a fight, and I will not let you win/My pretty mouth will frame the phrases that will/Disprove your faith in man”—Apple slows everything down and croons a la Diana Krall. She insists that she’s really just a lot of talk. That is, until all hell breaks loose again.

“Fast as You Can” is just one tart, rocking declaration of her schizoid romantic record on an album full of wild, revealing treasures. She may be in love, but that doesn’t mean her demons are dormant. Whereas Tidal was primarily understated and brooding, When the Pawn… is harsh, ragged, and straight to the bone. “Limp” showcases some funky, Princelike drumming and finds a devious Apple scripting lyrics familiar to Liz Phair listeners (“So call me crazy, hold me down/Make me cry; get off now, baby—/It won’t be long till you’ll be/Lying limp in your own hand”). Even slower, gauzier numbers such as “On the Bound,” which is highlighted by Apple’s torchy howling of “You’re all I need” (this could have been the next Bond song), are weighted down by a thudding percussion and a creepy Wurlitzer. Apple’s growth as a musician and singer is so persuasive on When the Pawn… that you almost forgive her for that lousy cover poetry. Almost.

Why do I always want to offer up a head-down, mumbled apology for being a huge, drooling Natalie Merchant fan? And why, before I get a chance to utter a simple “Sorry,” do a fair amount of people laugh in my face and call me a clueless sucker? Yes, I agree: Merchant is utterly infatuated with what she believes and what she writes. She doesn’t see much farther than the twilight twinkling around her. But still—come on, people, join me—there isn’t a more gorgeous, more acrobatic vocal in popular music.

That said, Merchant’s first live album as a solo act, while highlighting a voice that is maturing beyond beautiful, is ultimately a disappointment. Out of the 11 tracks recorded on June 13, 1999, in New York City’s Neil Simon Theatre, four are weak songs from her first two solo albums, Tigerlily and Ophelia, and two are forgettable cuts from her 10,000 Maniacs days. (“Wonder” and “Carnival,” both included here, are sweet, catchy songs, but presented as they are without vastly different arrangements, even I’m sick of them.) The best moments are found in two covers: David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.” On the former, Merchant’s crystalline alto floats magically over Erik Della Penna’s fuzzy guitar, and Major Tom’s loneliness becomes simultaneously uplifting and tragic. Merchant’s delivery is appropriately rootsy and dreamlike for her take on Young’s cryptic welcome to the ’70s—that is, until the final minute, when the singer’s voice is left virtually alone onstage and the song is brought very much into the turbulent present day. It’s a lovely, moving moment—and makes the rest of the album sound that much blander.

I like how Alanis Morissette can stretch a one-syllable word such as “learn” into a spastic, exaggerated Scrabble bonanza that sounds something like “luh-har-eeeer-narnar-aye-aye-nunnun.” I admire the way her songs are nothing more than thesaurus-fortified Dear-Diary shopping lists (“Thank you India/Thank you terror/Thank you disillusionment” or “It’s like rain on your wedding day/It’s a free ride/When you already paid/It’s the good advice/That you just didn’t take”). I dig the fact that she’s a former Nickelodeon punk still in her 20s who believes she’s really close to having this mixed-up world figured out. And hell, I stand behind her decision to get naked in her videos. So there: I like—ree-eel-eel-lee-lee la-hi-hi-kaka—Alanis Morissette.

Backed by a six-piece band and a fortified string section, Morissette is up to all of her quirky tricks on the newest MTV Unplugged disc (all except for that naked bit), and the result is just as pop-tasty and faux-deep as her two previous studio albums, Jagged Little Pill and Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. Give her credit for coming up with awkward, hooky little tunes—”Joining You,” “Head Over Feet,” “Ironic”—and being proud as hell of each and every one of them. The album opener, “You Learn,” framed by a playful piano, is so friendly and so well-meaning—and as simple as learning your ABCs—well, I just have to wail like a retarded banshee whenever I hear it. The new cut “No Pressure Over Cappuccino” continues the singer’s current trend of turning every song into an epic, metaphysical love story—”And you’re like a ’90s Jesus/And you revel in your psychosis/How dare you”—but her delivery is so sweet and honest the number works anyway.

Nutty lyrics aside, Morissette is developing a sublime ear for musical arrangement, and the album’s last three songs certainly achieve her desire for immediate grande finales. A cover of the Police’s “King of Pain” (“I will always be Queen of Pain,” she sings at the end—of course) is framed in a wide-open jazz arrangement, and her coming-out hit “You Oughta Know” is stripped bare and infused with more direct threat than before. But the album’s finest moment, and Morissette’s best song, is saved for last: “Uninvited” is indeed epic—just what she’s always wanted—a veritable thunderstorm featuring an ultimate crash of violent violins, ominous bass, and Morissette’s trademark unintelligible howling. It’s frightening how such a young, successful woman is able to summon such authentic pain and longing. But then again, that’s Alanis. And I like her. No apologies necessary. CP