MUSIC REVIEW | Fiona Apple – When the Pawn… (1999)

In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “42 minutes of a truly unique voice, delivering some truly unique, yet somehow familiar feeling music.”

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After deciding I wanted to review a Fiona Apple record, I quickly realised I had no idea why.  I couldn’t remember where or how I first became aware of her, or what made me think she was someone I needed to listen to.  So I went in search of a bio and found this from Rolling Stone, “A late-1990s overnight sensation, Fiona Apple was cast as the antidote to packaged pop divettes like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.  Considering her angst-ridden lyrics and her propensity to shock interviewers, some critics classed her among such provocateurs as Alanis Morissette and Sinéad O’Connor”.  Luckily I found that after listing to When the Pawn…  Because if I’d read it first, I probably never would have listened to a note of Fiona Apple, and never would have discovered that she’s kind of amazing.

A haunting, lurching piano march starts things off with On the Bound, before the strong, commanding voice of Apple takes full control.  Apple even makes the occasional vocal warble sound authoritative.  This is the kind of music that is usually tamed by someone like Tom Waits, hearing a woman with such a firm grip on the wheel somehow sounds more natural.  Even when juxtaposed by the tiny physical frame of Fiona Apple, it just seems right.  And it works just as well as she tackles the deep horns and haunted house vibes and percussion of To Your Love.

But it’s not all ominous tones and brooding darkness.   When the quiet, almost internal monologue verses of Limp give way to its ass kicking chorus of declarations and assertive drive, it becomes a real anthem.  Which makes the melodramatic piano and strings of Love Ridden highlight When the Pawns…  wide ranging scope even more.

Lyrics are rarely the first thing I notice about a song.  I’m much more interested in melody and instrumental innovation.  But when the sultry tones of Fiona Apple open a song with a line like, “Gonna make a mistake, gonna do it on purpose”, it means A Mistake had me much more interested in the words than the music.  Which is weird, since musically, A Mistake is also one of the more unique, interesting and layered songs on When the Pawn…

Stripped back to just Apple, her piano and barely their drums, the intro of Get Gone is a great showcase of just how powerful and engaging her voice really is.  Even when the bass guitar, full drum kit and stings arrive, this song is still all about the vocals.
Fiona 2
Saving its most reflective, perfectly mournful, yet audaciously lush moment for last, I Know feels like a song that could only work if it came last on a record’s track listing.  It’s a song that needs to be earned, it’s also a song that sound s like closure.  As it faded out, I realised that When the Pawn… gave me no easy or simple way to describe the music of Fiona Apple, but it did give me 42 minutes of a truly unique voice, delivering some truly unique, yet somehow familiar feeling music.

Fiona Apple

Other Opinions Are Available.  What did these people have to say about When the Pawn?
Rolling Stone
One Album a Day

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