Is there a trait in popular music rarer than mystique? When an artist's every move is breathlessly documented, when every live performance exists on YouTube through a thousand trembling cell-phone cameras, it's hard to cultivate an air of otherworldly mystery. For all the intense fandom she inspires, Fiona Apple is not an over-exposed pop star. She disappears for many years between albums, tours only sporadically and shies away from PR. A new album, her first in nearly seven years, finally arrives in June, and its title is another head-spinning whopper: The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do. But the Fiona Apple who strode on stage at Stubb's for NPR Music's showcase at the SXSW music festival was more commanding than enigmatic, conveying vulnerability in her vibrato but otherwise booming and shimmying with supreme confidence. Surrounded by a fine backing band, complete with a pianist and stand-up bass, she exuded a sort of sleek intensity. Facing down a crowd of thousands — and a spot of feedback here and there — she kept the crowd's attention rapt by letting her voice boom fearlessly toward the clouds. Apple has been out of sight for ages, but you'd never know it here: Though songs from The Idler's Wheel ("Anything We Want," "Valentine," "Every Single Night") didn't instantly pop off the stage with the electricity of "Sleep to Dream" or "Criminal," what could? It's a thrill to have her back, as vibrant as ever on the brink of a much-anticipated tour. Here's to many more.
"Fast As You Can"
"Every Single Night"
Producers: Amy Schriefer and Robin Hilton; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; Audio remixed by David Way.
Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.