First Taste of Fiona Apple is Sweet

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

weighs.

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

ways."

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.