If you haven't listened to Fiona Apple's new CD yet, you probably have a good reason. First, the title -- too awful and, at 90 words, too long to quote in its entirety -- is a cringe-inducing self-help poem inspired by her belief that she's a victim of media persecution. Embarrassing verse aside, Apple has a point: It's easy to hate her. She's young and rich, and she takes herself extremely seriously; she's got a hotshot-director boyfriend; she quotes Maya Angelou and rambles earnestly at inopportune occasions, such as the Grammy Awards; she bursts into tears during interviews; she uses fancy words like "desideratum"; she's ridiculously pretty, even without makeup or airbrushing. Still more damning, in a video from Tidal, her triple-platinum debut album -- released in 1996, when she was only 19 -- she skulked around a wood-paneled basement in her underpants, singing about how she's been a bad, bad girl.
Poor, misunderstood Fiona! She wants to be an artist, but people can't forget about those panties. Unfortunately, pop audiences and the suits who create them prefer easy dichotomies when it comes to female singers: Sex kitten or poetess? Vixen or visionary? Nancy Sinatra or Laura Nyro? Christina Aguilera or Chan Marshall? Pick one master -- the ignorant masses or the smart-ass hacks -- but you gotta serve somebody. Now Apple sings, "I wanna make a mistake, why can't I make a mistake?" Why not indeed? Who among us hasn't scampered around in his or her underwear? Granted, she should have come up with a less dippy album title. Another grievous error was including a lyric booklet, which, as Apple should know by now, makes it way too easy for mean-spirited media types to mock her. Like most records by ambitious 22-year-olds -- for that matter, like most records that aren't made by the Handsome Family or the Magnetic Fields -- When the Pawn sounds much better without a lyric sheet in hand.
"Keep on calling me names, keep on, keep on/And I'll keep kicking the crap till it's gone," Apple lilts on "The Way Things Are," sounding sweet and brave, a bit weary. She might be an annoying little freak, but there's no denying that she has some extraordinary gifts, among them a gorgeous dusky contralto that shifts adroitly from breathy and tender to keening and caustic. More impressive is that, as a composer of sophisticated pop melodies, she's right up there with Elvis Costello, Carole King and Burt Bacharach, able to assemble imaginative, experimental song structures that never seem labored or precious. The impossibly catchy single, "Fast as You Can," is a schizoid fusion of jittery new wave and sexy Dusty in Memphis-styled soul; "I'll Know" is a heartbreaking Gershwinesque piano ballad.
Among her many smart moves on this remarkable record, Apple enlisted genius producer Jon Brion, the George Martin of our times. Whether Brion has the brains and integrity to work only with exceptionally talented people (Aimee Mann, Rufus Wainwright) or whether he somehow makes everyone sound fantastic is unclear, but his contributions to When the Pawn are inestimable. He arranges the instruments (many of which he also plays) in his characteristically nervy, oddly seductive way, augmenting Apple's graceful piano with sleek string sections, vibraphones, woodwinds, Wurlitzers, chamberlins, optigans, mellotrons, glockenspiels, pump organs, dulcitones, marimbas and myriad weird widgets and found sounds. Each listen reveals a fresh layer, a new sonic texture. Even if you still don't think you can stomach Apple, Brion is reason enough to give her another chance.