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AUSTIN -- Fiona Apple made a return to a large-scale stage for the first time in six years last night (March 14), for an audience eager for an early answer: Will the singer-songwriter be a "best" or "worst" of 2012? For attendees at the South By Southwest Music Conference, there is rarely anything in between, as hype forms hyperbole and fans are converted to fanatics.
The NPR showcase at Stubb's was Apple's opportunity to bow new material from her forthcoming full-length "The Idler Wheel," which has a tentative ETA in June. It proceeds her last album "Extraordinary Machine," out in 2005, evidence of just how much credence the Los Angeles-based gives to traditional album release schedules. Her set list boasted three new songs along with a mix from her three previous efforts, including tracks from her debut "Tidal," an album that still seers with lust, sexual abuse, self-abuse and coming-of-age. Apple, now 34, was ever-emotional on stage, consistently embracing all the instability and jitters of her late teens and early 20s, with endearing snarls and that patented, quivering vibrato.
As is custom, Stubb's had embarrassing sound problems. Apple continued screwing her in-ear monitor back onto her head though she and her four-piece backing band showed no unprofessional attitude, let alone revealed any error in-set. During instrumental jams, the artist would bury her head in her arm on top of the full length piano, or close her eyes and smooth her skirt. Her slender arms would slash Xs in front of her, or she's flail her high ponytail as she restively put her hands on her hips.
You've got to hand it to someone who makes their home in uncomfortable places. For all the volatility that comes with a "comeback," she, well, makes the most of it.
"You're imaginary," Apple said to the crowd, after a very scarce moment of banter revealing she'd spaced-out on a previous song. "I was like, F*ck, I'm doing a show."
She made a figurative escape to her own little paradise with a lover in the first new song of the set, "Anything We Want," as she urged the title line and to "Go off, take our clothes off" to the programmed rhythms of spoons, tin and cowbell. There was also a curious line of relief, of not letting "the bastards get us down."
She delivered "Paper Bag" (from 1999's "When the Pawn...") with similar deliciousness, tongue-tying around penchant lines like "Hunger hurts and I want him so bad, oh it kills," a longing that resonates closely with another fresh track, "Every Single Night," hyper melodic and tortured, Apple open-endedly singing in a tribal vocal run: "I just want to feel everything."
"Valentine," just like the paper variety, means well but can be rather jarring. Dramatic pauses tore apart the chorus "I root for you / I love you / you you you" while she rhymed the phrase "dinner date" with "teardrops on every plate, chewing on her consonants while she banged hard on the piano.
Other highlights included the one-two punch of finale "Carrion" and "Criminal," the former still having one helluva bridge-choral transition "My feel for you boy is decaying in front of me..." as a sibling lyrics can be found in the latter: "I've been careless with a delicate man."
Apple doesn't put out a lot of albums, her songs a collection of very keen emotional responses. It'd be a farce for her to manifest her delicate men and decaying memories from thin air. That's what made her performance so immediate: these are slices from her actual life, which she purported lived as she mulled a new album over these last seven years. Her yield in 2012 is still very much up in the air, but this show was just the start: Apple's vulnerabilities obviously don't make her weak. In fact, they make her stronger than ever.
Below are videos for "Anything We Want" (mislabeled in the first clip) and "Every Single Night." Fiona Apple is performing at Central Presbyterian tonight for the Pitchfork showcase, and will be embarking on short tour thereafter.
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