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Fruitful flowering of avant-garde sounds

album of the week

Fiona apple

The Idler Wheel . . .



Can it really be 16 years since Fiona Apple released her critically garlanded debut, Tidal? She was just 19 at the time and her searingly honest, intelligent brand of piano rock heralded the arrival of a precocious talent with an uncompromising vision.

The Californian has been comparatively quiet since then -- you have to go back to 2005 for her last album, Extraordinary Machine.

Of late, the likes of Joanna Newsom and, to a lesser extent, Zooey Deschanel have gone some way towards filling that Apple-sized hole.

Now Fiona Apple is back with a typically singular album whose full, overwrought title -- tongue twister fans, at the ready -- is The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do.

Apple has opted for the sparsest of arrangements -- piano, drums and found sounds -- and it's one that suits many of her unflinching confessional songs.

Werewolf is a case in point: raw and uneasy, its skeletal composition is there to serve her expressive vocals and unflinching lyrics.

Every Single Night finds her in full-on Laurie Anderson-mode, especially in the part where she dispenses with words and delivers one guttural howl after another.

While Apple's new songs fascinate and some are among the most compelling of her stop-start career, her shift towards a more avant-garde direction has come at the expense of a pop sensibility that informed many of her earlier compositions.

And as her sonic palate is so restricted, the music feels very samey as the album enters the final stretch, although her often darkly funny lyrics about malignant relationships are always worth cocking an ear to.

Despite this, Apple remains capable of making even the most jaded listener sit up and take notice. The gloriously demented Left Alone is a triumph of bluesy vocals and piano that somehow manages to be both abrasive and exhilarating.

KEY TRACKS:Werewolf; Valentine

Day & Night