Fiona Apple at Sixth & I



March 28, 2012

review by Jason McCool for PinkLine Project

It feels like it’s been a long time for Fiona Apple. By the rules of the universe she once occupied, that of pop-starlet-writhing-on-the-floor-half-naked-at-seventeen-on-MTV-celebrity-it-girl, it has been a long time. Seven years since her last album might as well be seventy in the transient whydfmlness of American popular music (lmgtfy), and even that one trickled out six years after, delayed by a legendary industry holding pattern. Shocking, get-off-my-lawn tidbit: The day after this concert I asked a classroom of thirty college students how many had ever heard of Fiona Apple. The response? ZERO.

So the opportunity to catch this reclusive artiste in the intimate, 450-seat environs of the Sixth and I St. Synagogue, in this decidedly un-sleek, un-LA, allegedly wonkish little town of ours wouldn’t be missed by this fanboy! (Well technically, it would have been missed had my roommate not won the tough-to-get, $45 tickets in a 5K race and had previous plans to skip town, but I digress.) The high-ceilinged worship hall was packed to its old, warmly rustic walls for this show, and pretty much every member of the audience seemed to belong to the 27-35 target demographic who most likely used Apple’s songs as an emotional crutch during high school or college. (Me? Nah, I only listened to Stockhausen.)

This was my first visit to Sixth and I, and though I enjoyed the intimate feel of the space considering its size, I found the sound rather drastically and unnecessarily over-amplified, which boomed out over the space and too often muddied up the finer textures of Apple’s songs. (I sat in the far ends of the balcony however, so I don’t know how the sound reached the folks directly in front of Apple, but I don’t imagine it was much lighter.) I’m willing to consider however, that this may come down to a personal preference for unamplified sound; I imagine acoustic music would sound gorgeous in this truly unique hall.

Apple tumbled on stage in a propulsive flash of physicality, a tattered but still strangely glamorous waif tossing about like the lone leaf blown about on a stark winter tree. (That is my last attempt ever at Fiona Apple-esque purple prose, I swear. It is now calm under the waves of the blue of my oblivion.) Having never seen her perform live, I was initially struck by her gauntness; she has suffered from eating disorders and substance abuse in the past, so I was then pleased to notice the teabag string hanging from the mug she returned to in between songs. (Throat Coat, I’m guessing. Better for the voice than SoCo.)

I reckon those of us like myself who have a funny relationship with rock music, who admire its primal power but aren’t afraid to criticize it’s over-reliance on tired patterns and an often conservative, even simplistic approach to composition, savor Apple’s music because her melodies flow so logically from a place of unexpected, jazz-soaked harmonic foundations and tantalizing, spine-shifting grooves. She also values orchestration and the use of actual instruments, neither of which have been de rigeur in pop since the heyday of Brian Wilson, sadly. (Jazz musicians dig Fiona Apple.) Hearing these familiar pop hooks, which half the hall seemed to sing along with in unison (including a brave female inebriate who danced to the lip of the stage and vainly tried to “conduct” Apple, who smartly ignored her), in a live context this music felt closer to punked-up Weimar cabaret than to a langorous background track for late 90s dorm room makeout sessions. Also, the nasty, elastic background band created the groove, in no small part due to the contributions of silent wunderkind keyboardist and former Elliott Smith collaborator Jon Brion, who also happens to be one of LA’s finest film composers (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love). I just may have had to bite my tongue from yelling “I love you Jon Brion!” in response to the women yelling “I love you Fiona!”

The mythology of the tragic American pop star unable to cope with demons stretches back to Stephen Foster, passing through Billie Holiday, Michael Jackson, the 27 Club which last year claimed Amy Winehouse, and most recently, Whitney Houston. In this context, and especially given her well-noted early troubles, it’s almost surprising Apple has stayed healthy enough to maintain a functional existence, never mind a career in pop music. Perhaps her sporadic approach to recording and touring helps her avoid the intense pressure of pop stardom, and perhaps even subtly heightens her cool factor? In any case, I’m hoping Apple continues to find a way to function as a creative musician amidst the madness; American pop music could sure use her voice.

And oh, that voice, those songs, that emotional connection which is impossible to fake or mechanically produce in the studio. Like Billie Holiday, Apple seems to sing from her bruises, and maybe even needs them to create, and that authentic, unashamed swagger is what her fans seem to connect to. It’s the voice of getting up off the floor, of sexual rather than mere “sexy,” and it makes more technically gifted but career-driven singers (ahem, Beyonce) seem mechanical in comparison, at least to this listener.

The set consisted of a deft mix of “hits” and unobtrusive if intriguing new songs, culled from Apple’s forthcoming album, gothically titled The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do, which sounds more like something you’d read on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s gravestone than a rock and roll album. (Shockingly, this is the only the second longest album title of her career. Also, the record is slated for release this June, which given the track record probably equates to an actual release date of December, 2015.) Absolutely everybody (but especially the women) seemed to join Fiona on old favorites like the gnarly “Criminal,” the urging yet defiant “Sleep to Dream,” and the teasing, playful “Extraordinary Machine,” but at first listen the new songs seem well worth the wait. (I was hoping for “I Know,” the gorgeous final track from When the Pawn… but the set focused on Fiona’s harder edge, candles on the piano notwithstanding.) The penultimate song, a cover of Lennon/McCartney’s “Across the Universe,” was pleasing, even if most fans have heard it before (it initially appeared on the Pleasantville soundtrack), but her final song, a cover of Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe,” revealed the ghost of slow, sultry 50s doo-wop which lingers behind the door of Sun Studios rockabilly. Our greatest and most interesting American pop musicians, Fiona Apple amongst them, have mastered the artisanal craft of mixing unexpected flavors into an intoxicating musical cocktail; even if we wait years between sips, the taste is ever sweet and slow like honey.

[Conveniently assisting me with my metaphor, the song which would have to suffice for an encore to the appreciative crowd, slightly underwhelmed at the length of the barely hour-long set, was a recording of Nina Simone’s “Sugar in My Bowl.” Sweetness, indeed.]