By RICHARD CROMELIN
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Who upset the Apple cart?
Nobody's taking credit for spilling Fiona Apple's unreleased (and possibly unfinished) third album all over the Internet, but the action has upped the ante in what's become pop music's biggest art-versus-commerce dust-up since Wilco versus Reprise Records and Danger Mouse versus the Beatles.
Now Apple's record company is cracking down, she has clammed up and fans are still manning the barricades.
The New York-bred singer-songwriter whose first two albums, 1997's "Tidal" and 1999's "When the Pawn ...," made her a commercial and critical success is a perfect centerpiece for this drama. Edgy and vulnerable, mercurial and uncompromising, she's the heroine of a fervent cult and a classic potential victim of the crass music business.
Despite her initial impact -- "Tidal" sold nearly 3 million copies and earned her a Grammy for the song "Criminal" -- Apple was a high-maintenance renegade, refusing to play by the record industry's rules. That earned her ridicule from the mainstream, and intense loyalty from fans who identified with her idealism and emotional openness.
What's going on?
So it's understandable that there would be high anticipation for her first new music in six years. Trouble is, with both Apple and her label, Sony's Epic Records, declining interview requests, it's unclear what really happened to it.
Fans who are protesting with demonstrations at Sony headquarters and petitions at www.freefiona.com and by sending apples to Epic executives say that the singer turned in her album, "Extraordinary Machine," in May 2003 and that the label decided not to release it because they didn't think it would sell enough to justify its costs. Sources at the label contend that Apple's submission was a work-in-progress, not a completed recording.
The matter became an issue when two tracks from the collection appeared on the Internet last year, followed by the entire 11-song album earlier this year. A Seattle disc jockey, Andrew Harms, also obtained a copy of the album and began playing it.
Epic's only comment has been two vague statements. The first, issued in February, concluded, "Fiona has not yet delivered her next album to Epic, but we join music lovers everywhere in eagerly anticipating her next release." A shorter statement, released last week, said simply: "Epic is continuing to work with Fiona's management toward the release of this project."
And for the last couple of weeks the company has been warning Web sites that have posted the music to remove those files or face legal action. Many have pulled the songs, though disc jockey Harms said last week that he is still playing the album on Seattle's End Radio (107.7 FM) and has heard nothing from the label.
If the saga is cloudy, the music itself is unambiguously potent. One rumor floating through the instant mythology of "Extraordinary Machine" is that Apple herself wasn't happy with it. But if the album eventually comes out in anything close to the form that could be downloaded from the Internet, it will mark a striking artistic advance for an already formidable musician.
In her first two albums, Apple emerged as a songwriter who could twist the conventions of the confessional lyric into intriguingly distinctive shapes, drawing on a dysfunctional upbringing to bring a rare candor to her scenarios of romantic obsession. The vehemence of her delivery made it seem as if a therapist's couch must have been part of the studio furnishing.
Her singing wasn't what you'd expect from such a waiflike figure -- her voice was authoritative, low, and smoky with jazzy inflections, evoking comparisons to Nina Simone. On "Pawn," producer Jon Brion's pop-cabaret instrumental backing was unobtrusive, framing her singing with a flavorful but restrained mix of pop instrumentation and string arrangements.
Apple's singing is supple, spontaneous and eccentrically personal throughout the 11 songs, and Brion's more aggressive approach draws out more of her humor, always a crucial if subtle ingredient in her music.
Not that she's turned all sunny. Through all these stretches, Apple chronicles obsession masterfully, capturing the exhilarating balance of excitement and terror that comes with not being in control. "I think he let me down when he didn't disappoint me," she sings in "Get Him Back," distilling her perverse need to be let down.
The fans might be chanting "Free Fiona," but it's pretty clear from this music that she's been freed as an artist.