Fiona Apple
London, Shepherd's Bush Empire
MOJO    Jul 97
by Mark Blake

Set List: The Child Is Gone/Sullen Girl/Sleep To Dream/Slow Like Honey /Shadowboxer/Pale September/Criminal/Carrion/Never Is A Promise/Angel

Feminine angst and gal power may be bankable commodities in today's musical climate, but right now Fiona Apple's greatest hurdle is the prejudice that surrounds any new, young female singer-songwriter emerging in the wake of you-know-who.  While the names change with each passing month (bonjour Leah Andreone; au revoir Patti Rothberg), Apple shines more than any of her contemporaries. Her debut album, Tidal, was one of last year's most striking releases, and if the 19-year-old's career has failed as yet to go supernova, then it can only be due to the fact that she remains a very well-kept secret.

Tonight was her first London date (barring a music industry showcase last year), the lack of hype suggesting that her record company are wary of letting their charge get lost in the huddle of leather-trewed Alanis wannabes.  Tidal's highpoints -- the maturity and emotional sweep of the songs and Apple's voice (too big for such an absurdly small body) -- translate well in a live setting.  Seated behind a grand piano, she struck up an engagingly melancholic Child Is Gone and the aptly-titled Sullen Girl, casting a curious hush over the theatre and prompting the inevitable but valid observation about an old head on a young body.

There can be no ignoring the fact that Apple's age is a distinguishing factor here, but while you gawk at the strength of her songwriting and the size of her voice, her youth has its drawbacks.  In contrast to extraordinarily grown-up numbers slow as Slow Like Honey, she wandered to the front of the stage and launched into a jittery, nervous dialogue, namechecking friends and rubbishing an old boyfriend.  During a passionate anti-Californian spiel (Apple is originally from New York) she sounded just like the kind of Beverly Hills 90210 prom queen -- albeit one that writes her own poetry -- she was busily berating.  Similarly, when away from the piano and centre-stage for Sleep To Dream, the big clanging rock number that opens Tidal, she threw a set of shapes that might have been filched wholesale from the Alanis book of exaggerated postures.

Such contradictions might be frustrating, but when Apple gets it just right (try the glorious Shadowboxer), the possibilities seem endless.  Let the dust settle and the clones disappear: a year or two down the line she might just be unstoppable.  fin