Searching For Emotion Dormant Under Layers
 New York Times   
May 29, 2000

by Ben Ratliff

Good pop stars specialize in the clutching and releasing of control. Fiona Apple is a good pop star. It took her a couple of songs to get around to it, but on Friday night at the Beacon Theater she had a quip between songs to excuse her show-stopping, onstage meltdown last February at Roseland. (That concert was halted midway because she couldn't hear herself within the sound system. Tickets from that night were honored at Friday's show.) 

Fiona "It was all just a misunderstanding," she lamented. "You said you wanted me to be self-confessional; I thought you said selfish and unprofessional!" 

She had several more less-rehearsed mea culpas: she formally excused that fateful evening's sound man, vowed that she would never do such a thing again, blamed herself for everything and thanked her audience for coming back to see her again. And she was at her most agreeable. 

But hers was still an apology with an edge, as if the thrill of unveiling her own faults outweighed her desire to reconcile. It's exhausting trying to find the emotional core of Ms. Apple's gestures; still in her early 20's, she has used volatility to create a well-defined aesthetic. 

Her music, stocked with the passing chords and dramatic harmonies of Tin Pan Alley, ripples with the theme of worlds hidden beneath the surface: there are songs within songs, speaking of feelings within feelings; she's given herself the freedom of contradicting herself in lyrics and building episodic, slightly disjointed songs. This is especially true with the music on "When the Pawn . . ." (Epic), her second album, which made up most of her set. It has range: as she performed close facsimiles of its songs on Friday, there were mid-song changes of tempo, key and instrumentation. 

Not to mention a number of songs remarkable for their imagery about penetrating a human being's outer layers. "I'm as full as a tick/and I'm scratching at the surface," she sang on Friday in "A Mistake"; "You can use my skin/to bury secrets in," in "I Know"; "You feed the beast I have within me," in "Limp"; "If you catch me trying to find my way/into your heart from under your skin/fast as you can, baby scratch me out," in "Fast as You Can." 

Female singer-songwriters on the subject of love used to radiate empathy: in their lyrics they tried to understand lovers who didn't understand themselves. Ms. Apple, the sum of a quarter-century of punk attitude and a great American song book record-collection, heaves out a tangle of animal instincts, ready for a fight as she sifts fascinatedly through her own worst qualities. She was working hard on Friday, obviously trying to honor the expectations of frustrated fans. It was the last show of a world tour, but she often sang so vehemently that her voice went hoarse. 

On lines like "I don't know what I'm doing, don't know should I change my mind, I can't decide, there's too many variations to consider," she was presenting confusion as a willed option something actually exciting rather than a sluggish impasse. 

When she came out from behind her piano, Ms. Apple had the stage presence of someone singing along to a record in her bedroom, unself-consciously caught up in the music. To collect herself, she performed serpentine swivels of hips and arms, but more often she was thrashing around, letting her hair fall in her eyes. 

It was all at odds with the fixed control in her voice, and in the structure of her music: her six-piece band used a vibraphone, and a lead guitarist whose solos were finely tooled pieces of rock-radio crescendo. 

Returning for an encore, she sang the standard "Just One of Those Things" to a taped big-band backing, a nice, sincere touch that brought her down to the level of a striver, a mere fan. The Cole Porter song, writing off attraction as inexplicable, fits her repertory. She sang it with great enthusiasm; she's not quite relaxed enough a singer to make it swing, but she riddled it with detail, buzzing words with vibrato and making notes snap suddenly into true pitch. And surrounded by revolving colored lights, she was testing the waters for a new iconic posture as cabaret singer, one that complemented her other, more chaotic persona rather well.