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Finding Their Way

In Concert, Fiona Apple Progresses From Being a Mere Personality to a Commanding Performer

May 01, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN | TOMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Fiona Apple may be more paranoid about the press than any critic's darling in rock since Lou Reed, who was once notorious for declaring war over the slightest demur.

After just two songs at the piano Saturday at the Wiltern Theatre, the enfant terrible of mid-'90s pop stood and literally skipped across the stage to a waiting microphone stand--as happy as young Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz."

And what joyous news did Apple have for us?

That she's engaged?

Or, gulp, pregnant?

Or that she won the lottery?

Flashing a grin as wide as her cheekbones allowed, she declared: "There's no reviewers here tonight . . . [so that means] it's going to be a good show!"

Apple obviously figured (incorrectly) that all the critics had attended Friday's opening concert of her two-night engagement. To make sure no one missed the point, Apple returned to the microphone a half-hour later to repeat her delight in being able to do a show away from the prying eyes of critics.

Hello?

This is a woman whose confessional pop-rock approach has been--justifiably--cheered by almost every pop critic in the country. If anything, critics have been too generous to her latest album. The collection, "When the Pawn . . .," is a strong work, but it lacks some of the accessibility and songwriting high points of her 1996 debut, "Tidal."

The reason to bring this up is that it makes you wonder: If she doesn't see that critics are on her side, you wonder just how guilty all the targets are in her tales of dysfunctional relationships.

Whatever the accuracy of the accounts, Apple is a star because she gives us such convincing, no-holds-bared portraits of a young woman's hard-fought struggle to achieve a sense of self-worth.

In the strongest moments of "Tidal," the then 19-year-old Apple struck out with the fury of someone who had been so battered emotionally that she was afraid to show any feeling other than anger.

On the new album, she is more confident and balanced. She's speaking less out of fear and more after reflection. The result, in both the material and some of the arrangements, is less consistent flesh-and-blood detail.

Not so on stage Saturday, where her set was preceded by a brief, satisfying solo appearance by Eels leader Mark Everett.

Whether accompanying herself at the piano or simply standing at the microphone on song after song from the new album, Apple injected the material with a vocal conviction and punctuation that underscored the jazzy, torch-song sensibilities of the music. This gave even the slightest of her new songs a sense of drama, and lifted the best of them to even higher levels.

Apple accomplishes wonders by controlling the rise and fall of her voice, punctuating some songs with a breathless intimacy, others with a defiant snarl. This increased vocal confidence and range has helped Apple, the performer, move from being an enticing personality into a more well-rounded and commanding figure.

She seemed so liberated at times Saturday that she celebrated with more energetic than usual spins during songs. And her encore--Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things," a most surprising and upbeat choice--was a feel-good moment beyond anything we would have once expected from her.

If Apple has hit a bit of a speed bump as a writer, she has grown immeasurably as a singer and performer. If she can pull both talents together next time around, she will live up to the enormous promise of her debut album. At this point, there's no reason to believe she won't--which is good news at a time when mainstream pop music is starved for genuine emotion.

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