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.