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Set List: Fiona Apple [Chicago Theater; Chicago; 7/10/12]

Fiona Apple put on a raw and visceral show at the Chicago Theater tonight. It was one part punk rock and another part heartbreak. Through it all the crowd cheered wildly, even at the slightest moment of silence, and there were plenty of “I love you”‘s being thrown around in grandiose fashion from both men and women. On the whole it was intense and invigorating to watch, as she took her voice beyond its normal capacity and threw her body around the stage to the music. She also pulled rather liberally from her entire catalogue, careful to give each of her four records their due instead of focusing largely on her new one, The Idler Wheel… The main lesson learned from tonight was this: if you can see Fiona Apple perform live, make sure you go. She may not be one for banter, but talking might have taken away some of the magic in her performance. Here’s the full set list from the show. There was no official encore, though Apple left the stage for a minute at the end of “Criminal” while her band continued to play, then came back out for one more song.

Set List
Fast As You Can
On the Bound
Paper Bag
Anything We Want
Get Gone
Sleep to Dream
Extraordinary Machine
Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)
I Know
Every Single Night
Not About Love
It’s Only Make Believe (Conway Twitty cover)

Album Review: Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do [Epic]

Fiona Apple is best classified as an eccentric. She’s been that way ever since her first album Tidal came out in 1996 and the video for “Criminal” was damaged, dark, skeletal, and above all memorable. That record and song catapulted her to a level of fame that isn’t handled well by everyone, let alone 19-year-olds with a history of mental and physical trauma. So you get awards show speeches claiming that the “world is bullshit” and tours get cancelled because of “personal family problems.” Even though she returned in 1999 with her sophomore album When the Pawn… which only further solidified her already large fan base, incidents like her meltdown at a show in NYC persisted to the point where she pretty much vanished entirely from the public eye. She said in interviews years later that she thought about retiring from music, and probably would have had things gone a little differently.

What wound up happening was that Apple recorded a number of songs with her friend Jon Brion in 2002-3, and the tracks were submitted to her label shortly thereafter. It’s still unclear if Sony refused to release the Extraordinary Machine album because it wasn’t commercially viable, or because Apple herself asked them not to because she was unhappy with how the songs turned out. Nevertheless tracks leaked onto the internet anyways in 2004 and 2005, and fans finding out the album had already been completed, launched a “Free Fiona” campaign to give it a proper release. Apple says she was moved by the fan support, and Mike Elizondo was brought in to officially complete the record, rebuilding many of the old tracks from scratch and producing a couple new ones as well. Despite lacking a true single, Extraordinary Machine still did reasonably well for her, selling almost half a million copies. Tours with Coldplay and Damien Rice kept her busy through much of 2006, and after a string of dates with Nickel Creek in 2007 she once again retreated into the darkness, nobody knowing exactly when or if we’d see or hear from her again.

One of Apple’s favorite things to do in L.A. is dropping in and playing a set at Largo, which she’s done a number of times. Jon Brion has a weekly residency there, and she’ll show up and mess around with him. She was performing there last November and after a fan asked if she’d play something new, she said she couldn’t remember how to play anything off her new album because it’s been done for a year. Recalling the mess leading up to Extraordinary Machine, things moved a bit quicker this time. No demos were leaked and no tracks were re-cut. Epic Records head L.A. Reid promised in January that the album would be out soon, and five months later here we are. The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do is not the longest title Apple has ever affixed to one of her records, but it’s still more of a mouthful to say compared to anything else released recently. This fourth long player has her teaming up with percussionist and producer Charley Drayton to make a raw and uncompromising collection of songs the likes of which she’s never quite done before. It’s not a huge directional shift that’s set to redefine her trademark sound, but a few small adjustments have been made to emphasize her particular strengths that much more.

Apple could well have gotten away with making The Idler Wheel… an entirely a capella record, and judging by the way most of the songs progress, that’s probably how it started anyways. Her voice comes first, percussion second, and piano or other instrumental flourishes third. Such an emphasis on singing means she can wrench every single painful or joyous moment out of a lyric and push it straight into your own heart. On opening track “Every Single Night,” her voice quivers and lowers to almost a whisper when singing the lines, “I just wanna feel everything.” There’s an almost childlike innocence about it, one that’s carefully balanced against her riled up anger in the chorus, as she practically shouts, “Every single night’s a fight with my brain.” Much of the record does find her battling with her personal demons. “Don’t let me/ruin me/I may need a chaperone,” she ominously sings on “Daredevil”. Those feelings only spiral down further as the song progresses, and eventually she throws a temper tantrum, demanding, “Look at! Look at! Look at! Look at me!” with such throatiness you can envision tears of anguish streaming down her face. Yet in spite of the emotions that bleed through her voice, on “Left Alone” she claims to be more in control of those things than ever. “I don’t cry when I’m sad anymore,” she confesses with a calm and even-toned demeanor that nearly betrays the scat-jazz melody built around it. Mentally drained from searching for a reason for her solitude, Apple ultimately concludes she’s sabotaging herself. “How can I ask anyone to love me/when all I do is beg to be left alone,” she cries out.

When she’s not eviscerating herself over her own perceived flaws, Apple largely sticks to the familiar topic of good relationships gone bad. Of course when you tear up your voice yelling lines like, “I ran out of white doves’ feathers to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth every time you address me,” as she does on “Regret,” there’s nothing familiar or normal about it. Things don’t get much better on “Valentine,” where the sprightly chorus has the lines, “I root for you/I love you,” but the verses detail a love that has gone stale. “While you were watching someone else/I stared at you and cut myself,” she bemoans somberly. Not everything on The Idler Wheel… is sad, angry or disturbing though. The piano melody of “Jonathan” brings with it feelings of dread, but the lyrics are tender and sweet. Apple wrote the song about her ex-boyfriend Jonathan Ames and has nothing but nice things to say about him. “Werewolf” is in essence a break-up song, but it puts a positive spin on things by taking an equal blame perspective and a bright outlook for the future, where “We could still support each other/all we gotta do is avoid each other.” The sound of children playing that comes in near the end of the track emphasizes the somewhat playful vibe but also adds a tinge of sadness as an expression of lost youth, innocence and a time when love was the easiest and most organic thing in the world. Similar qualities are taken on by “Anything We Want,” which is uncharacteristically optimistic at the start of a relationship that really could go anywhere. Closing track “Hot Knife” builds off that vibe in an even more celebratory way. As Apple gushes over a great relationship, harmonies build atop one another in an off-kilter fashion, each singing a different part of the song until it’s a bird’s nest of voices and you can barely make out a word. The drums fade, and the last 30 seconds are just those vocals alone, each one competing for your attention and representing the many sides of Fiona Apple.

Vocals and lyrics aside, one of the biggest keys to the success of The Idler Wheel… is Drayton’s percussion work. He gets extremely inventive with how the rhythms are put together on the album, quite literally pulling from the kitchen sink for inspiration. When some artists say they experimented with percussion outside of traditional drums by hitting objects they found around the house, you can’t always tell that’s the case. Given the sparse arrangements on this album though, every bit comes through with forceful purpose. Light double taps on a bass drum mimic a heartbeat on “Valentine.” The rhythmic push and pull on “Jonathan” could very well be that of an office copy machine spitting out page after page just slightly offset from the driving piano melody. Shoes scraping against pavement create the march-like pace on the sprightly “Periphery,” and “Anything We Want” features pots and pans and a host of other hollow metal objects being tapped with a stick. The album credits also mention that a pillow was hit for percussionary purposes as well, however it’s not exactly clear when and where that happens (not that it matters). All of it contributes to the record’s unique charms, of which there are many. Apple has never made an album quite like this before, and it represents a seismic shift in the way we perceive her both professionally and personally. She’s still the same unbalanced and somewhat damaged girl we met over 15 years ago, but now more than ever she’s in control of her demons. A new sense of freedom comes along with that, and she takes full advantage of it. Those looking for the next “Criminal” or “Fast As You Can” will be left sorely disappointed. But if you pay close attention to the lyrics and allow yourself to fully engage with these songs, you’ll find a wealth of power, beauty, anger and tragedy poured out with the intent of reaching even the most hardened of hearts. It might not be the easiest thing to listen to, but nothing this brilliant ever is.

Fiona Apple – Every Single Night

Fiona Apple – Werewolf

Buy The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do from Amazon

SXSW 2012: Final Thoughts + Photos

Four days, 32 artists, and one physically/mentally tired guy. That about sums up my SXSW 2012 experience. While I was stumbling around Austin in a haze the last hour of the last day, my first trip to SXSW was a wonderful experience I wouldn’t trade for the world. After hearing so many great things about the city and the conference/festival, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer and simply had to go just once, just to see what it was like. The end result was largely what I expected it to be, but with a few surprises thrown in as well. My hope here is to chronicle the things I think worked about SXSW, and a few that didn’t. Also, if you click past the jump, you can see all the photos I took while in Austin. If you’d like to read about individual performances that I saw last week, have a look at the following daily reports:


The Good
Perhaps the thing that makes SXSW truly great is the sheer size of it all. There are literally thousands of bands performing over a handful of days, almost all of them within the span of about 2 square miles. Getting around from show to show isn’t bad, whether you’re on foot or feel the need to take a pedicab. Of course 6th Street can get a little packed during peak hours and create some slow downs, but it’s never anything too unmanageable, even if you need to get somewhere fast. The wide array of shows and showcases happening at any given time can also create a bit of a headache, as it’s not exactly easy to pick and choose if there are 6 artists you want to see all performing at once. Learning the city and the locations of all the venues both legitimate and illegitimate goes a long way towards helping you make such tough choices based purely on conveniece and distance from where you’re currently at. Do you go see Cloud Nothings playing down the block, or do you walk 6 blocks to see Grimes? As I see it, the decision is pretty much already made for you.

Yet there are also a few SXSW music moments that you can’t always plan for, simply because they weren’t planned. There weren’t many “secret” shows this year so much as there were secret guests like Kanye West jumping on stage at the 2 Chainz show or Eminem showing up to support 50 Cent or Bruce Springsteen bringing out everyone from Jimmy Cliff to members of Arcade Fire to Tom Morello and Alejandro Escovedo. Those extra thrills only make the experience more special. Also a major contributor: the people. Austin is already something of a cultural melting pot, but with music fans and artists coming into town from all over the world, the diversity factor multiplies by about 10. But here’s the thing aboug most music fans: they’re good, friendly people. You could strike up a great conversation with the person standing next to you in line and not blink an eye. Everybody was there because they love music, and the easiest conversation starter was always finding out who they’re most excited to see while in town. The only time I ever saw anybody get angry was when a couple of people cut in line trying to get into a show. The reaction was less anger and more, “That wasn’t cool, guys.” If we as a society behaved more like everyone in Austin at SXSW did, the world would be a more peaceful place. Unless of course you’re at an A$AP Rocky show and somebody’s throwing full beer cans at the stage. That near-riot situation was a showcase of the worst side of humanity.

But outside of good music, good people and good weather, good food is another thing Austin is known for. There were food trucks and street vendors on most corners, each specializing in a different type of cuisine. You could get breakfast tacos at one place, and some Korean version of spaghetti at another. There was plenty of BBQ to be found too. If you’re a fan of slow-roasted meats that are tender and delicious, you didn’t have to walk more than a block in downtown Austin to find some. For the cheapskates, there were also a bunch of showcases giving away free food. It’s worth noting that like grocery store samples, the “food” they give you for free is often small and may not be of the highest quality. It also gets snatched up almost immediately for those reasons as well. You’re costing yourself a potentially great meal if you’re not paying for it.

The Bad
For all the great things that happen in Austin during SXSW, it’s not a perfect situation by any means. First and foremost among the issues is overcrowding. Things may get cramped when you’re walking down the street, but that’s nothing compared to what’s happening inside many of the venues. Jam packed to the gills, trying to get anywhere close to the action was tough, let alone trying to make your way back to the exit. When things did get that bad, the waiting games began. Lines built up outside venues that were a city block or more long, everyone beholden to the “one in, one out” policy. Pitchfork’s evening showcase at Central Presbyterian Church was the height of madness, and I stood in line for 3 hours, missing Fiona Apple, just to get into the 500 capacity venue. Was it worth it? Eh, kinda. Every performance I saw there was a revelation, which is more than I can say about the other venues in town. I’m not entirely sure how all these sound engineers stay employed given how many times I saw an artist ask for a levels adjustment or something broke. I know these artists don’t get a soundcheck during SXSW and they want to put on the best show possible, but constantly stopping or even aborting some songs right in the middle because of a small issue takes away whatever mojo that might have developed in the meantime. The worst night of all was at Clive Bar, where Tycho played without any sub-bass, New Build’s monitors weren’t functioning properly, and Grimes was forced to start her set even after everything wasn’t tested to see if it was working properly (it wasn’t).

Sound issues are just one half of the paradoxes that SXSW presents. The other is overextension. While SXSW can be a great thing for artists (performing in front of music industry bigwigs brings all sorts of exposure along with it), agreeing to play 3 shows a day for 4 days in a row can put you near death’s door. Touring is tough enough when you’ve got one show every night for 3 weeks straight, but SXSW is a marathon compared to that long distance run. Artists function on little to no sleep and can easily blow out their voices from singing too much. On Thursday night I saw Grimes play a perfect show at Central Presbyterian Church. 24 hours later, she had performed at least twice more before arriving at Clive Bar with a voice that was barely there. She fought against it as hard as she could, and eventually had to call it quits in a set that was also plagued with sound problems. It was a valiant effort, but likely left most of the crowd disappointed. Then again, everyone was so kind, understanding and enthusiastic, it probably didn’t matter as much as I thought it did.

Finally, I want to mention the hierarchy that is SXSW. Your amount of access is almost entirely based upon your status within the music industry. If you’re not part of the industry and are simply looking to see some free music, there’s lots to choose from if you don’t mind a bunch of bands you’ve never heard of. If there was a line anywhere, it was almost guaranteed the general public would not be allowed in, as those with badges or wristbands automatically had first dibs. Among the badges and wristbands, only the badges were given priority access into any venue. Every badge would be allowed in before any wristbands would, no matter when they showed up. Of course if I had a badge I probably wouldn’t be complaining about it, it’s just that there were so many of them. There must have been at least a dozen shows I tried to get into but was denied because the room was already filled with badges. Granted, badges cost around $900 and you should be getting something for that money, but it would be more fair if they offerend some balance like for every 100 badges let in, 10 wristbands also get in. Alas, wristband holders got the shorter end of the stick, while the general public was more shafted than anything.

To Conclude
SXSW is something that every obsessive music fan should attend at least once in their lives. It can be a genuine blast if you let it, and only gets better the more access you have. Not but a few years ago, the several day conference/festival served as a proving and development ground for new music talent. Today, that’s not really the case anymore. You may discover your new favorite band while wandering around Austin, but for the most part our discoveries are contained to the hype cycle on the good ‘ol Internet. Then again, were it not for SXSW I never would have stumbled into the band Tearist and one of the most batshit crazy/weird live shows I’ve ever seen. I’m still not sure whether it was supremely stupid or incredibly clever, but if you like incomprehensible psych-pop and somebody showing an iron beam who’s boss with a lead pipe, Tearist could be for you. Outside of the occasional exposure to an artist you didn’t intend to see, you’re quite in control of your own destiny. Unless you’re the adventuresome type willing to walk into a venue without knowing or caring who’s performing, most identify and target acts based on personal tastes or recommendations of others. With so many choices, you can use the time to check a few acts off your personal bucket list. That’s what I did, and though I didn’t get to see every artist I wanted to, I feel like what I did see was extremely worthwhile anyways, with the aforementioned issues or not. I hope I get to go again, be it next year or in 10 years. And if you didn’t go, I hope you take the opportunity to get to Austin soon. It’s a great American city, and the Live Music Capital of the World for a reason.

Click past the jump for photos of many of the bands I saw at this year’s SXSW, in alphabetical order:

SXSW 2012: Wednesday

My first day ever at SXSW was only a half day really, or even less depending on what you’d call running around from 6PM-2AM. I arrived in Austin late in the afternoon and by the time I’d checked into my hotel and picked up my registration materials from the Conference Center, it was already 6. Have no fear though, that left plenty of time to do a little exploring, get a grasp of the land, and wait in a long line. Here’s a quick summary of what I saw during the evening’s excursions. It should be noted I also took some photos, but forgot to bring my camera cord with me to get them onto my laptop. I’ll have a complete photo wrap-up for you next week then. In the meantime, continue reading.

Originally I had planned to see Santigold perform at the Fader Fort, however I was still getting my bearings and failed to realize where the Fader Fort was located. For the record, it’s about 4 blocks away from most everything else, on the opposite side of the highway. By the time I’d figured that out, Santigold’s set would have been nearly over by the time I got there. Plus, who knows what kind of line there was to get in? The line outside Stubb’s for NPR’s showcase was tremendously long. That’s where I headed after giving up on the Fader Fort (for now). But I was drawn to the NPR showcase thanks to the presence of Fiona Apple and Sharon Van Etten. If I were a less motivated person, I would have stuck around there all night to see sets from Dan Deacon, Alabama Shakes and Andrew Bird. What a great overall lineup. But first, Fiona. I barely made it in the doors before she went on, and so many were excited to see her first major performance in quite awhile. She started her set with “Fast As You Can”, and not seated behind a piano but with a full backing band, she writhed like a woman possessed behind the microphone. There were oh so many highlights from her set, including 3 new songs and positively visceral renditions of “Paper Bag”, “Sleep to Dream”, “Carrion” and “Criminal”. There were a couple moments where she appeared to put a little to much force behind her vocals, causing her to sound just a touch hoarse, but a warm cup of tea was there to help remedy that situation. She got better as the set went on. There were a couple of brief moments of stage banter in which she admitted she’d forgotten whether she’d already sung the second verse of “Paper Bag” because her mind had started to wander before snapping back into place upon remembering she was in the middle of a performance. In all it was a great “comeback” set for Fiona Apple, and one I hope I’ll get to see repeated tomorrow night at Pitchfork’s showcase, assuming I get in.

I stuck around Stubb’s after Fiona Apple because I wanted to catch up with Sharon Van Etten. The last time I saw her live was a couple years ago before her album Epic had been released. Her new full length Tramp is another smart step forwards for her, so I was interested in hearing those new songs performed. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that almost her entire set was Tramp material, and boy does it sound great. She’s got a backing band now, which wasn’t the case when I saw her last, and they do a stellar job both adding to the melodies and filling in vocal harmonies. Particularly affecting were “Warsaw” and “Kevin’s”. While part of me longed to hear “Peace Signs” off Epic, a wish that wasn’t granted, I still walked away very satisfied.

Not to discount Dan Deacon’s live show, but I wanted to do a little exploring after Sharon Van Etten, so I took to the streets in search of sets from Friends at the Hype Hotel or Tennis at Red 7. When I approached both locations, the lines were super long and I didn’t want to have to wait. So luckily I stumbled over to the IFC Crossroads House for some Youth Lagoon. I’ve been wanting to see Trevor Powers for quite some time, and now turned out to be as good of a time as any. He hit all the necessary marks from his debut album The Year of Hibernation, including “Cannons”, “July”, and “Posters”. Color me impressed with his live show, even if he had to pause mid-set when his keyboard’s batteries went dead. Yes, one of his keyboards runs on AA batteries. He tried to joke around about it, but the crowd wasn’t quite laughing. I was amused because they weren’t amused. Dead batteries aside, everything else went swimmingly.

Speaking of swimmingly, things were not going so well over at Kimbra‘s performance at Haven. She was set to go on at midnight, however there were soundcheck issues that delayed its start by 25 minutes. When they finally got things to a level of satisfaction, the band began to play yet there was still no sign of Kimbra. They held a note for a few seconds and she quickly ran on and began to sing. If you’re familiar with Kimbra only through her duet with Gotye on his hit song “Somebody I Used to Know”, now’s the time to get to know her on her own. Wednesday marked her first ever performances in the U.S., and from every indication she’s going to be a star. She was fun, energetic, and possesses an incredible singing voice. She was pitch perfect through the entire set made up of songs from an EP that came out earlier this year along with her debut full length which will be out in May. The old songs are good, and so are the new ones. I commented on my Twitter feed that Kimbra is everything that Lana Del Rey isn’t. To clarify in more than 140 characters, Kimbra has a supreme stage presence, smiles a whole lot, and makes songs that are more compelling than most of Del Rey’s debut. Yet something about Kimbra’s songs left me bored, and I think it was the lack of anything new or innovative about them. They’re pop songs performed with guitars and drums instead of samples and beats. Don’t expect her to earn a big indie following, but do expect her to pick up some serious mainstream heat before the end of 2012.

I thought I’d end my night by keeping the trend of female artists going. Youth Lagoon was an exception, but otherwise it was an all female evening. MNDR was scheduled for a 1AM set, and I was intrigued to see her live for the first time. Her pop songs aren’t entirely my cup of tea, but SXSW is about expanding horizons and finding new talents. Upon arriving at Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room where the show was supposed to be, I was shocked to see the venue nearly empty. I was arriving late because Kimbra started and finished late, but it appeared things at Maggie Mae’s were also a bit behind. In a venue that appeared to fit a couple hundred, there were only about 30 people there total, and they were mostly at the bar or sitting at tables. They were frantically setting up the stage for what I assumed would be MNDR, and at about 1:30 things were officially underway. I’m no MNDR expert, but I could have sworn Amanda Warner was blonder and less strange than the brunette singing these songs. Okay, they were less actual songs and more sonic experiments, complete with vocal echo effects that turned deciphering lyrics into a fruitless endeavor. I’m going to go ahead and clarify now that while I thought it may have been MNDR performing, I found out afterwards it was not. MNDR didn’t show up for her set. The duo known as Tearist took her time slot. Yasmine Kittles fronts Tearist, and they consider themselves to be avant-pop. That’s an accurate description of what they do. I also suspect she was either on something, incredibly drunk, or simply angry at the small crowd watching the performance. Either way, she had a scowl on her face most of the time, thrashed around like she was being tortured, and stumbled and fell into the back wall behind the stage once or twice. She took a sip of beer at one point, and it looked like she was having trouble swallowing it. Towards the end of the set she brought out a metal beam and a lead pipe, beating and scraping them against one another in the most grating ways possible. Her bandmate William Menchaca stood on the side the whole time, putting together the beats and synths for the songs but looking just a touch embarrassed by the whole thing. Crazy and weird as the whole thing was, part of me thinks that’s what every Tearist performance is like. If so, it’s a shitshow to behold. They’re taking performance art to Bradford Cox and “My Sharona” sort of levels. Part of me wants to go and see another of their shows to see if it’s any different than the one late Wednesday night. Part of me is also turned off by it. Which side will win? Let’s find out together as this crazy SXSW week continues.

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