Monday, March 26
Better than: Holding it all in.
Before Fiona Apple took the stage at the Bowery Ballroom last night, Little Richard’s “The Girl Can’t Help It” pumped out of the speakers, its flirtatiously skipping beat booming throughout the packed room. The tale of a woman ruled by impulse turned out to be an ideal epigraph for Apple’s 13-song performance, during which her songs old and new (not to mention borrowed) seemed to cascade out of her by sheer necessity.
Since bursting into the pop world in 1996 with her debut album Tidal and the mournful, spite-filled ode to an ex “Shadowboxer,” Apple has had a lightning-rod presence. Her voice is deep and quivering, going into falsetto when necessary, as her lyrics describe her inner and outer demons in vivid, sharp detail—the music surrounding it bursts with filigrees and breakneck left turns and thundering piano. The energy that makes her music so vibrant sometimes spills over into her extra-musical public acts; one wonders what the TMZ-borne point-and-click-and-laugh news cycle would have made of her “this world is bullshit” acceptance speech at the 1997 Video Music Awards, or her problematic show at Roseland in 2000. (Judging by the titters and “OMG”s that accompanied the title announcement for her forthcoming album The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do—the second record in her four-item discography to go long on the nomenclature front#0151;it probably would not have been very kind.) Her last album came out in 2005; her public appearances since its promotional cycle ended have been scant.
Last night, after barreling through a version of the shape-shifting When The Pawn… track “Fast As You Can” that retained the studio’s controlled mania and added a couple of lead-guitar flourishes (one made my brain flash to “When Doves Cry”), Apple had something to say. “I don’t wanna go through this whole fuckin’ show where it’s like, six songs in and I’m fucking relaxed,” she declared. The crowd cheered. “That helped,” she said. “Thank you.”
From there, Apple went into three more songs from When the Pawn…, and at times being in the audience was not unlike standing on the risers at a choir recital; the crowd sang along dutifully to “Paper Bag” and “On The Bound.” She threw herself into the songs, her voice cracking at points, her entire body shaking along with the shifting tempos and low bass as if by involuntary force. Her long, high ponytail bobbed and swayed along with her; she closed her eyes tightly, communicating only with her voice and body. The newer songs Apple performed—three, in total—were of a piece with her Extraordinary Machine-era material, with the insomniac “Every Single Night” sounding as delicate as an antique music box.
Early in the evening someone shouted out a request for “Across The Universe,” a Beatles song that she covered for the Pleasantville soundtrack in 1998. Her guitarist played the opening lick after an impassioned run through “Criminal,” and the crowd went absolutely nuts; she got somewhat mock-peeved at the revelation of her big surprise, and then apologized to the Beatles (including a look toward the ceiling in honor of those who have passed away) before diving into the song. Not surprisingly, the crowd ate it up.
Apple has spent 2012 creeping back into the spotlight, beginning with a series of appearances at the Los Angeles club Largo, and continuing with a battery of shows at South By Southwest and a tour. Her album’s due out in June. Throughout Monday’s show—her second in New York in a four-day span—both she and the audience acknowledged her lengthy hiatus; thank yous were exchanged from both sides, and at the very end she told the crowd that she missed them. “I just wanna feel everything,” she’d sang a bit earlier, and her acknowledgement not just of her own nerves but of how the crowd’s adulation served as a balm for them proved that she was 100% serious.
Critical bias: “Extraordinary Machine” is a personal rallying cry.
Overheard: “Lana Del Rey is such an extension of this!”—Woman who earlier had threatened her friend that she probably was going to be unhappy at the show and would be heading to the bar once she felt the first flicker of dissatisfaction.
Random notebook dump: Apple is billed under Modest Mouse and Explosions In The Sky on the poster for the Governor’s Ball, which just seems wrong.
Fast As You Can
On The Bound
Anything We Want
Sleep To Dream
Every Single Night
Across The Universe
It’s Only Make Believe