Ever since the media caught wind of singer/pianist Fiona Apple, they've
been drooling to crown her the next Miss Big Thing. Her image as the lone
girl at the piano with visceral lyrics on the tip of her tongue have
earned her comparisons to Tori Amos; her penchant for jazz-based melodies
have called to mind dusk-throated ladies like Billie Holiday and Sarah
Vaughan. Moreover, the press has made more of the fact that she's a young
songwriter, or her "waiflike" beauty, than her worth as a songwriter.
What makes Apple, and the songs which appear on her debut album
Tidal, special is how unique they are. It's not that she's a good
songwriter for a teenager; it's that she's a great songwriter,
period. And as someone who, along with Medeski, Martin & Wood, is
struggling to bring jazz music back into the pop arena, she deserves more
than lengthy descriptions of what clothes she's wearing or how much she
One of the most remarkable things about Apple, actually, is her intense
self-possession. As a lyricist, she focuses on relationships -- most of
which are in trouble -- but she's not weeping about it. In "Sleep to
Dream," a rhythm-heavy track in which Apple's low, menacing vocal stands
alone through the first verse, she sings, "You say love is a hell you
cannot bear/And I say gimme mine back and then go there, for all I care...
This mind, this body and this voice cannot be stifled by your deviant
Although Apple considers herself a writer first, and then a pianist, her
piano work is understated throughout Tidal, blended with
percussion, vibraphone, guitar, chamberlain and bass while her vocals loom
above. Though her voice is untrained, there is an unpolished warmth to it.
Often it's as if she's speaking melodically as a poet would, especially in
places on "Sullen Girl" and "Carrion." Though her natural range is at the
low end of alto, Apple occasionally trespasses into upper registers with
no ill effects.
Although she's admitted she's never had a romantic relationship, Apple's
lyrics are perceptive and fresh, covering the range from vulnerable in
"Sullen Girl" ("I used to sail the deep and tranquil sea/But he washed me
shore and he took my pearl/And left an empty shell of me") to seductively
cunning in "Slow Like Honey" ("Does that scare you? I'll let you run
away/But your heart will not oblige you/You'll remember me like a
melody"). Though both are slow-motion ballads, Apple conveys each
according to its themes, allowing emotions to drench her voice and piano.
Most of Tidal is good, but a few tracks are real knockouts. "Never
Is A Promise" is an intimate encounter with a string quartet as Apple's
voice lilts through soprano skies. "You'll never feel the heat of this
soul/My fever burns me deeper than I've ever shown -- to you," she informs
a lover in the first verse. But the clincher comes at the chorus: "You'll
say you understand, but you don't understand/You say you'll never give up
seeing eye to eye/But never is a promise, and you can't afford to lie."
"The First Taste" creates an intoxicating elixir of jazz and Latin spice,
its predatory melody giving way to the metaphors of its lyric. "I do not
struggle in your web because it was my aim to get caught," Apple quips.
"Darling, just start the chase -- I'll let you win but you must make the
endeavor." Her voice trills in goosebump cascades while her piano sambas
off into the moonlight. It's the only truly danceable track on the album,
but it certainly does the job.
As the first single, "Shadowboxer" is a suitable introduction to her work.
It's jazzy, but its streetwalking piano melody and Apple's slurred
consonants capture the essence of the urban New York in which she was
raised. Some might find her delivery, which is off-key in places, a bit
obnoxious; others will find it utterly endearing for its raw, stumbling
temerity in lines like, "So I'll be sure to stay wary of you, love/To save
the pain of/Once my flame and twice my burn."
Though Apple wrote several songs on Tidal under pressure from her
record company to produce enough material to fill an album, she's created
ten sparkling tunes worthy of all the praise journalists can muster. It's
too bad much of the media hasn't allowed this tsunami to knock them down
and remind them that it's her songs, not her looks, which will endure. I
hope they allow Apple the freedom that can allow her golden beginning to
become more than a flash in the pan.