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Fiona AppleWhen the Pawn... Clean Slate/Epic

Fiona Apple sure is full of herself. The title of her record is a poem she wrote to Fiona Apple to remind her not to let bastards get her down. Give Apple credit for being somewhat, er, unpredictable: first with her earnest and flighty speech upon winning a 1997 Grammy (you could feel the execs at her label cringing) and now a 90-word album title. Too bad this unexpected behavior doesn't transfer to her music. If you've heard "Shadowboxer" or "Criminal," from Apple's debut record, Tidal, you've pretty much heard what she does on When the Pawn...: dramatic piano, slightly soulful grooves and her confessional, expressive vocalizing. Don't mess with success, even if that means limiting growth.

The 22-year-old is serious to a fault, uttering every word as if it were the most important in the world and trying to make every thought seem completely original. Her age gives her away, perhaps. It's a lot like being a 14-year-old, full of discoveries about the world that seem unique but actually are common. Apple isn't at fault for describing her world; it's just that she fails to contextualize it. Despite her best efforts, particularly when compared to her contemporaries in the piano-playing singer-songwriter department, such as Tori Amos, Rufus Wainwright and Ben Folds, she is rarely shocking. Solemnity is Apple's shtick. Compared with Amos's poetic frankness, the lyrics for Apple's "Limp" sound like last year's Alanis.

Musically, When the Pawn... fares better, with tense dynamics and flashes of solid emotions. The choppy piano rhythms and swirling, grandiose keyboards offer a tug-of-war on "To Your Love," a tussle between floating and churning. It's a delicate balance, but Apple pulls it off with her theatrical voice, which keeps things in check. With its army of keyboards, blasts of guitar and shuffling beat, "Mistake" also warms to its subject, choosing the fun, stupid path instead of the righteous one. She isn't lashing out or navel-gazing, and the song finds its heart. But even when declaring she's going to do something dangerous, Apple has to belabor the point, thinking about not overthinking.

Producer Jon Brion has a sympathetic touch from producing commercially misunderstood singer-songwriters such as Robyn Hitchcock and Aimee Mann, but he doesn't have as much to work with here. Perhaps Brion should have used his experience to push Apple away from so many overwrought clichés or challenged her to find her own voice. The bright spot of the record is drummer Matt Chamberlain (despite the inclusion of the dreaded drum solo on "Limp"). He throws down jazzy hip-hop beats, which give the mostly predictable songs a spark but can't start a fire. For all its ambition to be significant, When the Pawn... offers too little deviation from the formula. -- David Simutis

 
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