Online With the Divine

Such megamoodiness would be unbearable without a sense of the absurd. So be thankful collaborator Jon Brion produces and orchestrates When the Pawn . . . with a retrofuturist wit that tickles the singer's urbane candor. Brion-responsible for much of the instrumental character of debuts by Rufus Wainwright and Macy Gray as well as Apple-references dry Beatle sonics while summoning electronica's otherworldliness and hip-hop's street savvy. With its verse, chorus, and bridge sporting unrelated rhythms, "Fast as You Can" rivals recent Destiny's Child and Jordan Knight hits for disjointed weirdness. Here and elsewhere, Apple approaches Amos levels of keyboard mischief, and her self-deprecation is as sharp as her amorous attack. "I know I'm a mess he don't wanna clean up," she bebops with newly improved intonation on "Paper Bag." The whimsy peaks on "A Mistake," where our heroine escapes the weight of mature expectations with intentional errors. "If you wanna make sense, whatcha looking at me for?" she queries. "I'm no good at math." Doh!

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Tori Amos
To Venus and Back
Atlantic

Fiona Apple
When the Pawn...
Clean Slate/Work

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It isn't fair to compare Apple's benchmark with Amos's stopgap. When the Pawn . . . capitalizes on its uneven predecessor's strengths, whereas To Venus and Back summarizes the past while adding a tossed-off present. Amos's reliably wayward discs always get better with age, whereas Apple is still refining herself, her album instantly engaging. Both clit-poppers inhabit islands of mindful, willful adulthood in a fake adolescent sea. Those shallow waters are OK to visit, but here is where I'd rather live, cuz sometimes the world isa piece of shit.

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