Fetch the Bolt Cutters
2020, Epic. Producers: Fiona Apple, Aimee Aileen Wood, Sebastian Steinberg & David Garza.
In My Collection: Spotify, 2020.
IN A NUTSHELL: Fetch the Bolt Cutters has a unique style of music – rhythms and melodies that sound almost made up on-the-spot, produced by instruments that aren’t usually considered instruments. (Instrumentation credited on the record includes, among others, “metal butterfly,” “harp thing,” “water tower,” and “breathing.”) The lyrics are wise and kick-ass and funny, and the whole thing is just really fun to listen to!
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 10.
There was a time I would’ve hated a record like this. I mean, just look at my 100 Favorite Albums. It’s mostly filled with dudes with guitars playing loud, melodic rock. That description (basically) works pretty well for my Top 13 Beatles albums, as well. Regarding lyrics, while it’s true that The Clash, who sit at #1, were brilliant lyricists chronicling profound cultural and socio-political issues of the day, artists such as R.E.M. and Steely Dan and Stone Roses are better known for their cool-sounding inscrutable words than for heavyweight philosophizing. Even tremendous lyricists like XTC, The Replacements and Tom Petty, generally sing about personal relationships, not the larger world.
So, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in producing this website it’s that my favorite music tends toward a definite “type.” That type is NOT a woman singing strange, percussive songs that comment brilliantly on both her personal life and the society around her, accompanied only by piano, bass, drums, weird noises and barking dogs. And that’s why this is the first record I picked after all those other ones. I like to know I can still expand my horizons even as a 53 year old man.
To be fair, Fiona Apple is certainly not an unknown quantity to me. Her 2005 album Extraordinary Machine is #73 on my Top 100. Both her 1999 album, When the Pawn …1, and her 2012 album, The Idler Wheel …2, were not far outside my Top 100 when I made the list in 2014. So when I heard she had a new record this spring, I was very interested. Apple’s always had a great sense of melody, and she mixes up styles on her albums. If there’s a second thing I’ve learned producing this website, it’s that I love melodies and variety. (That pretty well describes London Calling.)
Fetch the Bold Cutters opens with the lovely “I Want You to Love Me,” which builds on Apple’s simple, evocative piano riff. Her voice is incredible – rough and tough yet sensitive, reminiscent of Michael Stipe’s. The lyrics very much straightforwardly describe the title. On the bridge she uses the Bob Dylan/hip-hop move of heavy internal rhymes that deliver a satisfying sense of surprise to the listener. Apple puts this tactic to great effect throughout the album. The song ends with Apple’s kooky dolphin sounds, which, well, look, I guess artists just have to go for it sometimes, so good for her.
“Shameika” is the song for anybody who was a nerd and teased or bullied by the popular kids. Once again the piano underpins the song, this time a percussive riff accentuated by a brushed drum kit. The found sounds throughout the album are cool, but the star is Fiona’s incredible voice. Speaking of found sounds, they really come to the forefront on the title track. On this one, she uses the internal rhyming in a near-rap, and the lyrics do the work. They’re a reflection on her life, and where it’s led her, and her desire to move on despite it all. “Fetch the bolt cutters/I’ve been in here too long,” she sings in a lilting, catchy melody. (Apple’s dogs, Mercy, Maddie, Leo, Alfie and Little, all credited on the album, make their first appearance on this one, but as with all backing vocalists since the dawn of recorded music, it’s really tough to distinguish who’s who).
I love “Under the Table” because it’s sung by someone who I wish I was, able to speak my mind in all situations. Her voice is amazing, and it builds in power and energy. (“I would beg to disagree, but begging disagrees with me.” Nice!) “Relay” is sort of a summer camp chant interrupted by jazzy vocals and bass3. It expresses both an anger at the douchebags who hurt us, but also a desire to not give in to the temptation to pass that anger onto others. “Heavy Balloon” is one of my favorites, a song with a sort of jungle beat and cool harmonies. Apple’s voice hits a variety of tones, both musically and emotionally. Like “Under the Table” and “Relay,” its lyrics are all about personal strength.
But the album’s lyrics are at their best when they’re dealing with the uncomfortable, challenging issues of personal relationships. “Rack of His,” is a reference to all the guitars an ex had, guitars he treated better than her. It’s a jaunty number where Apple shows off the jazzy side of her voice. I love “Drumset,” another swirling harmony vocal workout, with lyrics that say maybe she should stop dating musicians. “Cosmonauts,” has a spare, slow groove that builds to a raucous finish. It suggests that maybe there is a hope for couples willing to accept the heaviness of commitment.
I love the set of songs that address the topic of how heterosexual women interact with one another in relationship to the men in their lives. “Newspaper” is a great song, dark, creeping and intense, with multiple voices and sounds building on each other. It’s sung from the perspective of an ex-girlfriend to the new girlfriend, saying, essentially, we should be friends – we have so much in common! (Obviously there’s more to it than that.) “Ladies” is another slow, jazzy number. (I’d love to hear her sing some standards!) It calls for unity among women, with the excellent lines to the new woman in his life: “And oh yes/ There’s a dress in the closet/ Don’t get rid of it, you’d look good in it/ I didn’t fit in it, it was never mine/ It belonged to the ex-wife of another ex of mine/ She left it behind with a note, one line, it said/ ‘I don’t know if I’m coming across, but I’m really trying’/ She was very kind”
The song “For Her” opens with an Andrews Sisters-style harmony, and it’s sung beautifully. Accompanied throughout by only drums, the voices swirl and build to an angelic closing. It’s about sexual assault, but calling it a ‘Me Too’ song really denigrates the power and the meaning of the song. Fetch the Bolt Cutters closes with “On I Go.” Similar to “Relay,” it’s a sort of meditation on strength and persistence. There is a vocal screw-up about 1:50 that was left in the mix. That goof adds to the song. It demonstrates that we can persevere through the bullshit that might otherwise slow us down. In fact, I think if I were to sum up the album in one word, I think it would be: Perseverance.