Fire and Water Records: Fiona Apple

For the first episode of 2021, Fire and Water Records, goes sullen, sultry, bluesy, baroque, feisty, furious, plaintive, playful, aching, and alienating. Ryan Daly and Sean Ross discuss the sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious songs of Fiona Apple, drawing their favorite tracks from her five album discography released over the last 24 years. Can you handle this much angst? No, you can't!

Track list

  1. "Criminal" from TIDAL
  2. "Shadowboxer" from TIDAL
  3. "Never is a Promise" from TIDAL
  4. "The Way Things Are" from WHEN THE PAWN...
  5. "Love Ridden" from WHEN THE PAWN...
  6. "I Know" from WHEN THE PAWN...
  7. "Paper Bag" from WHEN THE PAWN...
  8. "Better Version of Me" from EXTRAORDINARY MACHINE
  9. "Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)" from EXTRAORDINARY MACHINE
  10. "Parting Gift" from EXTRAORDINARY MACHINE
  11. "Extraordinary Machine" from EXTRAORDINARY MACHINE
  12. "Werewolf" from THE IDLER WHEEL...
  13. "Fetch the Bolt-Cutters" from FETCH THE BOLT-CUTTERS
  14. "Under the Table" from FETCH THE BOLT-CUTTERS
  15. "Shameika"  from FETCH THE BOLT-CUTTERS

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Thanks for listening!

8 responses to “Fire and Water Records: Fiona Apple

  1. Ryan and Sean, I haven’t listened yet, but I will. “Criminal” voices a need for redemption and reconciliation, and it’s been an important song for me at key points In my life. The fact it was really talking about a romantic relationship never hindered how I heard the song. I never knew where to begin exploring the rest of Fiona Apple’s work. Thank you for providing a curated collection, complete with commentary, as a port of entry.

    1. As you’ll discover when you listen to the show, we don’t spend much time on “Criminal”, although it is one of my favorite songs. If that song is especially meaningful to you and you want to hear more songs that sound like it, I would check out “A Mistake”, “Limp”, and “Fast As You Can” which are all on her second album.

      1. Thanks, Ryan! I plan to do so. I’m not quite halfway through this episode, and I’m enjoying both the song clips and the discussion. You just finished discussing “Paper Bag”, and I’m thinking I might particularly like playful Fiona Apple, so the hints you and Sean are dropping about some of the later albums also have me intrigued. Thank you both for sharing what you enjoy and why you do.

  2. Sean Ross is like that actor you love who keeps getting cast in vehicles where he’s the only element you’re into *coughduritzcough*, so it’s a great relief to finally get him into [insert franchise you endorse heartily, as I’m fresh out.] I listened to Paul Spataro’s “Is It Jaws?” podcast for the first time recently, and I like the idea of judging various semi-comparable works based on a static (and slightly silly) benchmark. Like Lady Shiva and DC martial artists, I tend to use Bob Dylan in this fashion for singer-songwriters. I like and respect Dylan, but I rarely listen to Pod Dylan, so he’s more like the Batman in this equation. I recognize his stature, but Bronze Tiger beat Batman so bad he had to impotently witness a “murder,” and I put Fiona Apple in a class above. I know them’s bold words, especially in this particular venue, but for me personally the best works of one artist (rhymes with Snapple) eclipse the greatest hits of another (recent millionaire 300 times over.)

    I had heard “Shadowboxer,” “Sleep to Dream,” and “The First Taste” on the radio, strongly favoring the meat of that singles sandwich. The son of my partner in the comic shop started dating his future bride, and while we were friendly, I think it would be a reach to call her an actual friend. She left her copy of Tidal at the shop for what I’d guess was a few weeks. I felt a tad “criminal” myself, but since it was lying around, I “borrowed” it and got Mac to burn me a copy overnight. Overall, the lady’s musical taste left a lot to be desired (she would loudly complain at the slightest whiff of Violent Femmes) and she presumably picked it up on the strength of the singles, but I embraced the whole album.

    I should preface this by saying that I’m the worst Fiona Apple fan. I’ll illustrate this over time. So, the three track ya’ll picked from Tidal? I throw them out. Also, since memory space was a consideration in 1998ish, I didn’t bother Mac with ripping “Carrion” or “The Child Is Gone.” I’ve come around to them since, but they’re still lesser lights to me. “Shadowboxer” is a good song, but I feel like the chorus is trying to hard to sell the metaphor, and Apple was excessively criticized for “try hard” that I think is mostly only present in her breakout single. With “Criminal,” it’s more that it was played every hour on the hour for several years, and as noted, sounds exactly like a 1997 radio hit in a way nothing else on the album does.

    You’ve got to have “The First Taste” in there, one of sexiest songs of all. I recall a music reviewer shading Apple for the line about “Adagio breezes,” and want to throttle them for speaking ill of an ambition most pop singers never even aspire to, regardless of whether that specific reference falters. The bridges offers the simpler yet resonant “Full is not heavy as empty, not nearly, my love,” which more than makes up for any awkward missteps. It also puts a lie to the sad girl eyes on the cover, because this tune is DTF, as is “Slow Like Honey”.

    “Sleep to Dream” came out a month ahead of Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch,” though I don’t recall it getting radio play until after “Criminal” exploded. Regardless, one of these songs remains heralded (as of Netflix’s History of Swear Words) as a landmark of feministing, while I call it corny and lightweight when Apple (and The Cardigans’ “Been It”) had already done it full-bodied. It has Rumours level personal venom, but acts as a universal anthem against fuckbois. Apple also gets hung as being a bit spacey, so I like that the song seems to anticipate and preemptively strike at this characterization.

    “Never Is a Promise” is actually pretty great, so I was mostly being a shit, but also < "Pale September." After the roller-coaster of hurt, wanting, and anger, this is the coda the album needed (stupid "Carrion.") The chorus "And all my armor falling down in a pile at my feet, And my winter giving way to warm, as I'm singing him to sleep" makes my soul tremble. I feel that and want it to be felt by my partner. I'm typically the heavy person in a given room, not prone to small talk, and it does feel sometimes like lighter fishies are swimming around nearer the surface than myself. But it's nice to depressurize and float up a bit, carried off by a lunar tide "brilliant as the moon".

    I'm fairly confident that I got When the Pawn… as part of the Columbia Music Record Club in one of those ten CDs for a dime deals. I did eventually get stuck with an overpriced obligation-server or two, but Fiona only got the penny. There are no “wrong choices” on this album, because it’s a masterpiece that stacks up against almost all comers. If it’s not my favorite album, it’s way up there. I was going to congratulate you on avoiding singles, but I guess “Paper Bag” technically qualifies. Houston radio only had “Limp” and “Fast as You Can” in their rotation to my recollection. In this time period, I didn’t have a television, so I’d only ever seen snippets of the videos for “Shadowboxer” and “Criminal.” I think I saw the one for “Paper Bag” for the first time last year? Delightful. While I was driving home tonight, it started, so I sang along and got goosebumps on my arms and thighs. It always makes me think of the plastic bag from American Beauty. It’s basically a short story that packs so much meaning and sardonic humor in every line that’s being dramatized in song, and the chorus is outstanding.

    I won’t wax rhapsodic over “The Way Things Are,” which I thoroughly enjoy, and I also get off on that swanky guitar. It’s a really good song on an excellent album, but I’m not as passionate about it as others. “Love Ridden” though pierces my heart. It’s relatively simple and technically repetitive, but you feel that chorus on each recitation. Who hasn’t felt the pain of a diminishing relationship, where you still want more and one or both of you can only give less and less? To take something so meaningful, potentially life-altering, and suffocate it into something either dead or greatly diminished.

    There’s a lot more to unpack in “I Know” than I’m willing to commit to a comment. Lots of personal philosophy and a little experience developed through the consideration of western ideals of partnership and related entitlement or ownership. I just really appreciate how sophisticated Apple can be about all these sorts of entanglements. For her to maintain so many positive relationships with former lovers, she has to be an incomparable communicator (see also, her catalog) with the patience and wisdom of a religious leader.

    Since it got skipped here, I talked “A Mistake” on One Song Each (Side A, Track 12).

    I missed most of the media surrounding Apple up to this point, although an article came out around the same time as her last album exploring the stifling air of misogyny and gatekeeping that surrounded period reporting of her. It’s hard not to hear tell of her being spurned as an ingrate when so many other innocent and even heroic individuals have suffered exile attempts under similar biased illogic. Frankly, even if she was a “brat,” she’s a genius one far less problematic than men of inferior talent. However, by the early aughts I had my own computer and broader internet access. I followed the drawn out non-release of the Jon Brion version of Extraordinary Machine, including the letter writing campaign that saw fans send small plastic apples to the label in protest. At some point, Apple herself came out and said that the shelving was her decision, and that seems to match your account. Seemingly a lost album, I steamed the leaked tracks off Limewire. Years later, the album was, what, re-produced? I preferred virtually everything in the leaked version, even the proposed track listing and fan album art. What was with the pea pod, anyway? To my ears, the released version sounded like one of those albums where they turn everything into a dance mix, inessential and unwanted. I didn’t buy it, but a few years down the line, ripped a copy from a girl that I was increasingly ready to unfriend, but stalled until I was finished going through her music collection, like the bastard I am.

    The leaked “Better Version of Me” was weirder and more unique sounding, but there’s not enough distance between the two to upset me. I probably wouldn’t even notice which of the two was playing at a given time. It’s a fun romp with swell wordplay and a high Scrabble score.

    “Used to Love Him” is to me unquestionably better than “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song).” For starters, it sounds like organically produced material generated by a band playing, or at least using atypical devices that produce sonics that sound like they were tangibly manipulated. The album version is full of nonsensical electronic farts that may as well have been left off a Britney Spears b-side. Regardless, the lyrics and vocal rhythms rule here, and its absolute poetry. It paints so many pictures and portrays such conflicting attitudes, inhabiting the intended ambivalent, self-accusatory emotional space.

    And the lunch break/daily commute is over. More later.

  3. Another excellent episode with a great guest and a great artist spotlight! It was fun to hear you and Sean dissect some great songs. Like most people, I heard of Fiona Apple with her breakout album, “Tidal”, and I loved it! I was never big into the MTV (or, in Canada, Much Music) lifestyle, so I never saw some of these crazy videos that she made for her songs that you guys mentioned but it doesn’t shock me that they were amazingly artistic. Surprisingly, I never really followed up with any of her subsequent albums, even though I really enjoyed her music. This was a great podcast to give me a taste of her later songs and it makes me want to go back and listen to her discography!

    I agree with you, Ryan, that her voice his throaty and, I want to say, dark? Maybe it’s just the subject matter she was singing about, but she likes to stay in her lower vocal range and it really comes off as very dark, which I like. It’s much different than most female singers and very distinctive.

    And, as much I enjoyed your discussion about her complex, poetic lyrics, I would like to mention that her musical compositions are just as mature as her lyrics. There is some really interesting chord structures, melodies and even tonalities in the way she builds her songs, even though it’s mostly just piano, bass and drums. And like Sean, mentioned, how crazy artistic she was starting at such a young age!

    This was a ton of fun and I can’t wait to hear who the next guest and artist will be! Keep up the great work!

  4. My punishment for shading “Never Is a Promise” is to have had that specific song stuck in my head since my last comment five days ago. Not the least bit mad about it.

    I never considered the Jon Brion connection in “Parting Gift”, but it makes sense in the context offered. As noted, it’s very cutting, but how could you not feel honored to have warranted such dazzling phrasing in a song? There’s also the Mitchell Froom factor, where whatever the drama, dude helped the lady produce her two best albums. Can’t have been all bad.

    Agree that “Extraordinary Machine” could have come from a stage musical, and it reminds me that Nellie McKay’s Get Away from Me would have been out during the production period of this album. McKay was another ingenue who “overwrote” her lyrics, so I wonder if there were cross-influences here. While I certainly love music on its own, what separates the average performers from the true artists for me is the lyrics, so more is more. I didn’t see Apple’s occupation being so much with “love songs” as in processing her thoughts and emotions, which just happened to be at the most heightened in romantic entanglements. Because of the depths and atypical reactions to her relationships, I just don’t register “love songs,” aside from the most overt. But anyway, “Extraordinary Machine” isn’t that, but rather an anthem and the ultimate response to her characterization and attitudes over the course of this trilogy of albums. “Extraordinary Machine,” both the album and the specific song, are the end of her established arc. She’s not fixed, but kinda sorta she is fixed, if only on not being fixed.

    As I mentioned at the top, I have been a bad fan to Fiona Apple. I’ve never once seen her live, though I was sorely tempted to stay an extra couple weeks at my sister’s place when I visited after her birth, noting a tour was coming through her neck of the woods. I was still keeping up with local venues back then, so I’m confident that she didn’t pass through Houston at the time. But on the fourth album in, I finally paid full retail, and it was my first disappointment. I could have sworn that I was still a laborer when The Idler Wheel… was released, because I listened to an awful lot of albums on repeat via my various MP3 players while working, and I though it had gotten that treatment. Maybe I didn’t give it as much of a chance as I thought, but it got enough spins to keep me confident in my initial assessment. It would help if I could find my copy now, but my rip got lost or displaced in a drive crash. If I still have that cruddy cardboard sleeve with the hideous drawing on the cover, it’s buried somewhere I won’t soon find it.

    I didn’t remember “Werewolf,” and I’m an obvious mark for a lycan dual reference. Once played, I was like “oh, that clumsy repetitive one that half-sounded like a demo.” It’s fine, I guess. I recall being quite fond of “Every Single Night” as another anthem that I could relate to. “Daredevil” and “Valentine” were good, though not up to her usual standard. “Hot Knife” was a sweaty, sexy highlight, but boy, did I call a different song repetitive? How many words are even used in “Hot Knife,” much less verses? It’s all in the rhythm and “Cinemascope” presentation. I’m sitting here skipping through YouTube videos until I manage to recall which song was which. I don’t really follow behind the scenes stuff, so I just assumed drugs were involved. This sounded like the outlines of potential songs, and reminds me of that posthumous album they put out after Amy Winehouse drank herself to death. None of that may be remotely true, but that was my response. It’s just a jumbled mess of disparate elements– like a lesser talent trying to do a Fiona Apple album and failing miserably. I could put the first three albums up against anything, but I just wanted to put this one away.

    So, pandemic, right? My girlfriend has an unhealthy fixation on Enrique Bunbury, to the point where I finally put my foot down and said I wouldn’t allow him to become the artist I’ve seen the most times live just as her escort. Dude had another new album coming out, and she was touting him as this great songwriter. I’m monolingual, so I can’t argue the matter, but I did point out that one of the greatest living singer-songwriters was releasing her first new album in eight years around the same time. It had huge buzz and all this praise, so one day while I was at work, she played some of Fetch the Bolt Cutters on YouTube. Bunbury wasn’t at his best either, but to her, far ahead of this. I listened the same way on my own time, reading some reviews and all the lyrics. I didn’t actual finish the album, though, and still haven’t. I’m not even contributing to her page views or streams, which would cost me nothing. I said I’m the worst already.

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