Committing to a fledgling pop star is a lot like establishing trust and intimacy with a new lover. How many times have we been jilted when a favorite artist has sold out to commercial pressure, or simply lost inspiration after tasting success? These transgressions can be nearly as disheartening as finding your lover in bed with your best friend. So those of us with a bit of life experience tend to approach a prospective musical relationship with some degree of romantic skepticism.
When Fiona Apple came out with her poetic debut Tidal in 1996, her appeal as the tough yet vulnerable next-hot-thing transcended demographics; she appeared on the cover of youth-bible Spin and shone in the more mature spotlight of PBS's Sessions at West 54th. A potent mix of teenage passion, adult articulation, and pouty-lipped, anorexic tragic-beauty, the piano-playing singer/songwriter won the hearts of hundreds of thousands. But it wasn't easy to commit with confidence to this quasi-junior Tori Amos -- fewer than half the songs on Tidal were really worth listening to more than twice. Still, one could sense the seeds of something magical in Ms. Apple's soulful determination on tunes like "Sleep to Dream," "Shadowboxer," and the unsettling hit "Criminal."
Three years later, When the Pawn... could reasonably be called Apple's first grown-up release. Thanks to the production ear of longtime collaborator and multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion, "On the Bound," "To Your Love," "Limp," "Paper Bag," "A Mistake," and "Fast as You Can" feel like complete compositional statements. Tuneful sound effects, orchestral flourishes, and complementary six-string or keyboard riffs fatten up the songs' harmonic foundations without compromising their essentially streamlined characters. There's also a classic-pop influence that contributes to the album's overall catchiness. Add to this a few tasty grooves -- and the singer's sultry vocals and powerful, naked lyrics -- and you've got an almost perfect recording.
But there's a core problem with both Tidal and When the Pawn...: Apple's lapses into balladic cliché. The too-quiet pianistic introspection on, for example, "Love Ridden" and "I Know" is just plain boring -- melodically and lyrically. In contrast, when she seethes on the momentum-driven tracks, the singer hits the level of Polly Jean Harvey (or Tori Amos when she dares to rock). Lashing out on "Limp," Apple sings: "When I think of it, my fingers turn to fists/... It won't be long till you'll be/ Lying limp in your own hands." On "To Your Love," her vulnerability is just as striking: "Please forgive me, for my distance/ The pain is evident in my existence. ... I just need to be reassured/ Do you just deal it out, or can you deal with/ What I lay down?"
Apple comes across as both insecure and demanding, a youthful pessimist who longs desperately for hope but has yet to experience it. She frequently refers to herself as "crazy," and on "Paper Bag," as "a mess he don't wanna clean up." Then there's the eating issue: From the same song she reveals, "Hunger hurts, but starving works/ When it costs too much to love." It's not easy to commit to Fiona Apple as favorite-young-artist, but then, what meaningful relationship ever comes without an effort?
Fiona Apple performs with Jurassic 5 on Wednesday, March 22, at 8 p.m., at the Warfield, 982 Market (at Sixth Street), S.F. Tickets are $26.50-29.50; call 775-7722.