Veteran beneficiaries of major-label hype and longtime critical darlings both, Fiona Apple and Regina Spektor seem like women that only a mook could fail to applaud: They are smart, passionate, ambitious, musically challenging, lovably quirky and supremely self-empowered—everything a great pop star should be.
Why, then, is actually listening to them such a dreadful chore?
On their fourth and sixth studio efforts respectively, the two New York-based singers and songwriters both try way too hard musically and share entirely too much lyrically—or at least try to without ever really saying much of anything. Ultimately, they come off like Jess on New Girl imitating Andrew Bird aping Tom Waits.
That is to say, for goddess’ sake, these albums are tough going!
Abandoning longtime producers and collaborators Jon Brion and Mike Elizondo in favor of her touring drummer Charley Drayton, Apple once again treats us to an endless (and endlessly pretentious) album title, The Idler Wheel is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do, perhaps as a deterrence machine to stop all of the unkind cracks there, just short of where they really belong. That, of course, is aimed at songs, which feature serpentine arrangements that contribute to a sound that is dense, difficult and devoid of hooks even when Apple’s histrionic ululating and stately piano are the only elements in a stripped-down mix.
Much is made of the musician’s blending of classical music, freeform jazz excursions, Tin Pan Alley song craft, Broadway bombast, hip-hop, rock and everything and the kitchen sink, but is that really much of an accomplishment when the resulting stew is so inedible? And the lyrics are much the same: “Byron by way of Oprah,” Rolling Stone proclaimed, but all you need to do is scan the way The Los Angeles Times cataloged Apple’s self-descriptions—“‘a still life drawing of a peach,’ ‘all the fishes in the sea,’ ‘a fugitive too dull to flee,’ a tulip in a cup, a dewy petal and a moribund slut”—to conclude that that is not a compiment.
Or, listen to the closing track “Hot Knife,” which neatly exemplifies everything that’s wrong here. Opening with some rolling timpani, like ominous thunder in the background, Apple begins by playground chanting, “If I’m then butter, then he’s a hot knife,” proceeding to riff on that over and over again (“He excites me/Must be the like the genesis of rhythm!/I can’t fight thee/Whenever I’m with him”), eventually adding some ornate keyboard trills, digitally layering her voice into a chorus a la Brion’s favorite trick, stripping things back down to just vocals and timpani, throwing in a bridge that has nothing to do with anything, then building back up again until the whole shaky edifice collapses under its own ponderous weight.
In the past, Spektor has given us reason to expect better. Though needlessly fussy at times, Far (2009) in particular was rife with moments of tuneful, laser-focused truth such as “Laughing With.” Yet on What We Saw from the Cheap Seats, she seems to have let all of the critical love go to her head and assumed she is infallible, falling down the same hole of needless complication and fretful fussiness as Apple, and tapping the latter’s man Elizondo to produce.
Here, it’s the second track “Oh Marcello” that sums up all of the problems. Once again, we start with a lot of classical piano showiness, and then the Russian-American pseudo-raps in an awful fake Italian accent—“Oh, Marcello/How I wonder/La Madonna, she tell the truth/She’s been saying I’ll have a baby/When he grow up he become a killer”—before inexplicably nicking the chorus of the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” rendered in precious show-tune mode. Mama mia! In comparison, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the dictionary definition of understated sensibility, not to mention it’s a hell of a lot catchier and it rocks much harder.
And so it goes through the bulk of this disc until, as with Apple’s latest, you’ll be begging someone to pass you the Excedrin Extra Strength.
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (Epic Records)
Regina Spektor, What We Saw from the Cheap Seats (Sire)
Rating on the four-star scale: 1 star each.