Fiona Apple released the album with the longest title a few years ago. The title of this new album (also taken from a verse of Apple’s) doesn’t quite match in terms of length, but the music absolutely delivers in terms of quality.
When the Pawn… was full of big numbers–it was loud and brash and gorgeous. The Idler Wheel is much more subdued and initially I didn’t think it was as exciting. But this subdued music draws you in and gets you to really absorb everything that’s going on. Musically, this album takes notes on the orchestration from her previous album Extraordinary Machine, but it scales everything back to what amounts to just Fiona’s voice (often multitracked) and minimal instrumentation.
Like “Every Single Night” which opens with beautiful bells/glockenspiel as Fiona sings. “Daredevil” is almost all percussion and loud piano. Indeed, the main sounds of the song is a quick shuffling followed by short piano chords. It is so stark but her voice just sails through the open space beautifully.
The meandering piano of “Jonathan” is great–at turns minor and sad but then come chords and beauty. More drums fill “Left Alone” as the opening twenty or so seconds are all drums followed by a menacing piano riff and the amusing lyric, “How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone” (and with each subsequent repeating of this chorus she sounds more and more exasperated).
“Periphery” is also mainly percussion. But in this case, the percussion sounds like feet scraping on gravel–rhythmically of course. This leads to a great vocal turn by Fiona, one that climaxes in a big roaring almost shouting section. Speaking of roaring, just listen to the rawness that Fiona reaches on “Regret.” It is spine tingling.
“Anything We Want” opens with more odd percussion, which I’m led to believe came from Fiona tapping on things on her desk–and it sounds like it–not instruments, but found objects. Indeed, read the list of instruments that she and her compatriot used on the album: For “Feedy”: Artwork, Celeste, Composer, Dancer, Field Recording, Keyboard Bass, Loops, Percussion, Piano, Primary Artist, Producer, Stomping, Timpani, Vocals and for “Seedy”: Autoharp, Baritone, Bouzouki, Cora, Dancer, Drums, Field Recording, Guitar, Marimba, Percussion, Producer, Stomping.
The final song is just Fiona and tympani as she sings a line about hot knives and melting butter. Then the piano and second voice (her sister) sings a fugue as the lines repeat over each other. It’s a crazy, daring song to end an album with and it sounds like nothing else on the radio today.
I have never been disappointed by an album from Fiona. Each album is different, taking new chances having wilder experimentation And this one is up there with the best. It’s easily one of the best records of 2012.
[READ: January 16, 2012] Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
I saw an ad for this book in The Believer (I believe and I thought it looked great. Sarah said she had already put it on hold. And when it came in from the library, I grabbed it first.
This book is really great. It’s a story full of intrigue and secret societies it embraces old books and modern technology; it’s a romance and a puzzle. And it’s all done in a very comic style.
What is surprising is how different the book is from what I initially expected. True, I didn’t know anything really about the book before reading it, but the book opens with an overeducated and underemployed guy, Clay, getting a job in the titular bookstore. But it’s no normal bookstore. First, it’s open 24 hours a day (that’s 8 hour shifts for three clerks because they really don’t have many customers). Second, it’s very narrow and very tall–Penumbra has a massive ladder that rolls along all of the shelves and there’s a chapter dedicated to using it properly. Third, although there are books for sale in the front (an esoteric lot based mostly on Penumbra’s whims), the back section of books (the tall shelves called the Waybacklist) are not for sale–indeed, they are not even real books per se.
There is a small group of local readers (called the Unbroken Spine) who come to the store, give Clay a code, return a book and check out a new one. Part of Clay’s job is to write down every detail he can about them each time they come in. But he is not supposed to open any of these wayback books. Those are really the only rules of the store.
Clay has two roommates, one of whom is Mat, a guy who works for Industrial Light and Magic as a miniaturist (he is building a miniature city in their living room called Matropolis). He also has an old friend, Neel, with whom he played a Dungeons and Dragons like game called Robots and Warlocks. Neel has since become a very wealthy programmer (his job is very funny). Clay and Neel both loved the The Dragon-Song Chronicles, a trilogy of nerdiness by the author Clark Moffat (incidentally, later in the book a character is named Tabitha–this is now the SECOND book in which both of my children’s names are included and both of them are good guys. Hooray! So obviously I loved this book). I love that later in the book, Clay is making an mp3 version of the books because they were only available on cassette! (I was equally outraged with him).
When Clay’s friends visit the store, they are enchanted by it and can’t believe that he hasn’t looked at any of the books. So, he does. He breaks the rule and flips through a book. But he can’t make much out of it as it has been encoded.
Soon after, a pretty young girl named Kat Potente enters the store (because of a Google ad that he placed trying to get people into the store–she fit every quirky demographic he could dream up). Kat works for Google, recognizes that Clay is a kindred soul and, in the whirlwind way of people who know what they want, she sets up a date with him. They hit it off immediately, especially when she sees that he’s working on a program to graph the checkouts of the books that the Unbroken Spine take out. (Yup, there’s programming in the book–in Ruby). The graph suddenly starts taking shape and Clay believes that a pattern is slowly emerging. And when it does, it is like no pattern you have ever seen!
Kat mentions that she Google has been working on Natural Language Reading and the plot coalesces–they can use one of Penumbra’s logbooks (with all of the details about the patrons) to scan into the Google Reader. This will give Google a chance to decode handwriting and it will Clay a electronic version of the book to help map the checkouts of the Unbroken Spine. All of this is hush hush of course (I love how they snuck out the book). But, no matter how much he tries to sneak things past Penumbra, he gets caught. Then the first twist comes: Penumbra loves that Clay is doing this–he loves that Clay has a mind that is interested in solving puzzles–and that is what the Unbroken Spine is all about–solving puzzles.
The Unbroken Spine proves to be an ancient society and they are trying to find the meaning of an age-old book–which may hold magical secrets. As befitting an age-old society they do things in an age-old way–underground chambers, robes–no computers or technology of any kind. But Penumbra sees the value in how quickly Clay figured out a part of the mystery. When Penumbra tells the First Reader about the machine, he expects a glorious embrace that the answer may be near. But instead he is shut down. Literally. The bookstore is closed of the first time in decades. And no one knows where Penumbra has gone.
And that’s all just the first section of the book. The rest of the book travels to Google headquarters (‘m dying ti know if what he says about it is true or if it just feeds into my fantasy of what Google is like to work for). It also goes underground in New York into the cavernous room of the Unbroken Spine. It involves intrigue, codes, puzzles, and animated breasts. And it’s all written in a light, brisk style.
I enjoyed this book very very much. It was exciting it was thought-provoking and it made me laugh. This is already looking to be one of my favorites of 2013.
Incidentally Griffo Gerritszoon, who created the important font in the book, is fictional although there was a font maker named Francesco Griffo who worked with Aldus Manutius, on whose manuscript this book turns. Manutius and Griffo created several fonts still in use today including: Bembo, Poliphilus and Aldus.
You can read a chapter of the book online here.