Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Fiona Apple Sleepwalks Her Way Through A Surprisingly Good EP: “Across The Universe.”

The Good: Good songs
The Bad: Short, Uses the title track twice
The Basics: Despite being a rather short recording, Fiona Apple’s “single” “Across The Universe” has alternate takes of her tracks and the cover song which make it worth hunting.

For those who follow my many reviews, I am a fan of Fiona Apple . . . and not a fan of c.d. singles. It takes a lot to get me to praise a c.d. single, so the fact that I am on the fence between a three and a four on an EP is a pretty big deal for me. That said, anyone looking to enhance their Fiona Apple c.d. collection will find a bit of value in “Across The Universe.”

“Across The Universe” is a song written by the Beatles (or Lennon and McCartney) and covered by many artists afterward. Following her debut album, Fiona Apple recorded the song and her cover of it was used on the soundtrack to the film Pleasantville. It has since made it to market also on a freestanding compact disc featuring Apple’s own works. The thing is, with only four tracks, two of which are readily available elsewhere, it is a tough sell to consider “Across The Universe” worth getting.

This c.d. “single” actually has four tracks (three songs): Apple’s cover of “Across The Universe,” the radio edit of “Criminal,” the live version of “Sleep To Dream,” and an edited version of “Across The Universe,” which was used for promotional purposes, including by radio stations which played the song. Apple wrote both the words and music to “Criminal” and “Sleep To Dream,” both of which appear in other forms on her album Tidal (reviewed here!) and the two versions of “Across The Universe” are only different in that the first is a more true rendering of the original song, while the second eliminates some of Apple’s piano solo in order to make the song shorter.

For those who have not heard Fiona Apple’s works, she is the embodiment of the pop-rock style of one woman and a piano. She plays her piano on all four tracks and only on “Criminal” is there production and accompanying instruments which are distracting. Apple’s primary instruments are piano and her voice and she uses them both quite well. With “Criminal,” though, she presents a very up-tempo (almost danceable) song with lifts and musical swells that give it a grand and sometimes dangerous feel to it. This version of “Criminal” has had almost a minute of pianowork cut out of it to make it more palatable to radio stations (who like things short and repetitive, apparently). By contrast, “Sleep To Dream” and both versions of “Across The Universe” (the latter, like the radio edit of “Criminal” is just missing a few minutes of piano) have a more stark sound focused on the piano and Apple’s voice.

As for Apple’s vocals, she has a classically-trained soprano voice which is just stunning. Listeners who are used to production elements being used in their pop-rock artists will be surprised at how high her voice goes without alterations on “Sleep To Dream” and how dusty it can sound on “Across The Universe.” On “Criminal,” she exhibits exceptional range and she has a vocal force that other artists only dream of possessing.

The only truly unique track on “Across The Universe” is the title track. The live version of “Sleep To Dream” is identical to the one on the “Criminal” single and “Criminal” is fine without any of it cut out. But on “Across The Universe,” listeners get what they pay for and fans of Fiona Apple will find this to be a recording worth picking up just for the variations from the norm (whereas the “Criminal” single did not offer enough unique, this album has the variants obsessive fans tend to hunt for).

“Across The Universe” is a stoner type song in the reimagining by Fiona Apple and she sings her way through it with a sleepy quality that is sometimes difficult to listen to (like late at night while driving through the dark). While The Beatles performed the song as a psychedelic rock song which could be the beginning of a buzz, Apple presents it as if she is completely wasted. She slowly belabors each word as she whisper-sings out “Words are flying out like / Endless rain into a paper cup / They slither while they pass / They slip away across the universe / Pools of sorrow waves of joy / Are drifting thorough my open mind / Possessing and caressing me” (“Across The Universe”). And while Apple makes the poetics of the song seem poetic, her presentation seems to be more in the style of William Shatner performing “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” than any energetic reinterpretation. And while Shatner was working with a concept (trying to sing as if he were on LSD), Apple does not seem to be working with any similar conceits. She’s just sleepsinging the song. And it’s interesting, though the end is a bit belabored, and it is something that fans of Fiona Apple will want.

As well, fans of The Beatles who enjoy hearing alternate interpretations of the Fab Four’s works will like “Across The Universe” and Apple’s two original songs illustrate a level of writing on par with some of the best works by The Beatles. That makes this a great little album, if one can find it (at least until Apple comes out with some compilation of her obscure recordings, which is not forthcoming anytime soon).

For other works by Fiona Apple and similar artists, be sure to check out my reviews of:
When The Pawn . . .
Bomb In A Birdcage - A Fine Frenzy
Wicked Little High - Bird York


Check out how this single stacks up against other musical works I have reviewed by visiting my Music Review Index Page!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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