The Idler Wheel… (Epic)
I know an album’s great when I initially struggle to describe it. There’s no inhibition with a crap record. But when the music you’re hearing feels so refreshing and transporting, you’re happily caught up in that moment, not worrying about how you’ll recount the experience. And since I write my reviews while listening to the very work I’m critiquing, that’s a problem. Because on Fiona Apple’s fourth (and second insufferably titled) album, you hang on every lyric, still interpreting one string of words by the time the next comes around. You’re constantly trying to identify the unconventional instruments with which this largely percussive music was recorded, or the source of the samples Apple often recorded herself (like the screaming schoolchildren on “Werewolf”). You’re transfixed by her emotional exhibitionism, like on the primal “Regret.” You’re processing the intricacy of these otherwise lean compositions: the variety of cadences, the minor-key chord progressions, the juxtaposition of Apple’s highbrow vocabulary against her most simple and visceral declarations. And by the end of each song, you’re left a little shellshocked, wondering not just how something so delicate is so flawlessly arranged, but how it ultimately makes you feel. The emotions vary, but it’s all invigorating. I can think of no better descriptor for the album. Nor do I need to.
Oceania (Martha’s Music/EMI)
It’s all too easy to write off Billy Corgan, lover of self, hater of his fans. But the Smashing Pumpkins figurehead has not made a memorable album since 1997’s Adore (majority opinion would say 1995’s Mellon Collie). Oceania breaks his losing streak. It has neither the anthemry nor the ambition of his early/mid-’90s records. The back-to-basics effort doesn’t even evolve the SP sound, despite all Corgan’s post-millennial experimentation and the new, fresh-faced band. But it’s compulsively listenable and impeccably crafted. And, more impressively, it’s deceptively simple. Sure, instrumental and digital flare surfaces — and the title track clocks in at nine minutes, because Corgan cannot help himself — but the alt-rock figurehead keeps a laser-like focus on his songwriting. There are no obvious singles, no ostentatious divergences and, remarkably, no filler — just start-to-finish harmony. While we could use less musical comfort food and more risk-taking, Corgan has needed the opposite for some time, and here he delivers it, the sort of mature and quality work that may just redeem him of his sins.
Consistency is rare among the rock vanguards, who by definition are inclined to stray from the status quo. Punk priestess Patti Smith, however, has maintained a fairly tight grip on quality control for most of her five-decade career, and her new release, Banga, is no exception. Credit some of that to guitarist Lenny Kaye, who’s been with her for the entire ride, and knows when to get out of the way and when to let his chords fly. But Smith is ultimately the driver here. She still commands the mic, even when she tones down her trademark shamanistic fire for more zen-like incantations (see “Tarkovsky,” named after the film auteur). And her melodic prowess endures, evidenced in “April Fool’ and “This is the Girl,” the latter sung for Amy Winehouse, the least self-serving musical eulogy in memory. The beauty of Smith’s art is it’s rarely about her, and even when it is, she effortlessly connects herself with the greater world — and, best of all, her listener.