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SXSW: Fiona Apple's splendid case of nerves

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Fiona Apple, pictured performing Wednesday night at Stubb's during SXSW,
drew an SRO crowd for her second showcase Thursday, as well.

AUSTIN, Texas -- Alabama Shakes might be one of the buzziest new bands at this year's South by Southwest music conference, but Fiona Apple is the one of the hottest returning-act tickets. After not having been seen outside of Los Angeles in years, and with her last record of emotionally taut pop-cabaret released in 2005, two lines for her second showcase Thursday night snaked around the block in different directions.

Performing in a Presbyterian church, Apple strode purposefully onto a candlelit stage with a four-piece band and launched into "Fast as You Can." Still a frenetic ball of anxiety, when Apple stands at a microphone without a piano to occupy her hands her nervous energy nearly flings her limbs apart. Thursday night she wore a white shawl over her shoulders, which she immediately took to flipping and waving about like a manic Stevie Nicks. Banging fists against her body, flailing her arms, pounding the piano -- one senses that without the music to focus her energy she'd go utterly mad. Then again, she can rein herself and become the perfect picture of Marlene Dietrich smolder, as she did during "Paper Bag."

Apple's voice is not a smooth or delicate instrument. It's guttural and trembling and sounds ravaged by a prior hour of sobbing; midway through her Thursday concert, she made a brief show of spraying some salve into the back of her throat. The songs fit the sound -- lyric after lyric of man after man who doesn't understand her (the dolt who won't even kiss her in the right place in the new "Anything We Want") and heaps of self-doubt ("I'm gonna f--- it up" from "Mistake"). "Not that I go to church or anything," Apple said, gazing up at the shadowy altar, "but I'd like to apologize to the building itself for my cursing."

The band supports the crackling tension with herky-jerky soul-jazz phrases, as if Elvis Costello's "Spike" is drowning his sorrows at L.A.'s Largo club (home of the acclaimed residencies curated by Apple producer and compatriot Jon Brion). Prone to lengthy vamps and calliope-like refrains, the music's drunken gentility was often pierced by tinny, edgy solos from her guitarist. Every song was a suspense thriller, and as Woody Allen said, "I hope it lasts."

Briefly, anyway -- her SXSW showcases kick off a tiny tour, just a few dates including two sold-out shows Sunday and Monday at Chicago's Lincoln Hall.

Apple's new album returns to her penchant for lengthy titles -- (inhale) it's "The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do" -- is scheduled for a June release.

... and there's more SXSW 2012 coverage here!

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.


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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on March 16, 2012 12:05 PM.

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