Even for an artist who almost seems to invite drama, this has been an exceedingly dramatic year for Fiona Apple. Last winter, it seemed as if her fine new album, “Extraordinary Machine,” would never see the light of day; eventually, two versions became available –Jon Brion’s wonderfully eccentric production, which was leaked onto the Internet and quickly became a cause celebre, and the more streamlined recordings produced by Dr. Dre associate Mike Elizondo and released by Epic Records in October. At the Wiltern Theater on Saturday, Apple presented the third iteration of these songs and, unfortunately, they’re a lesser version of her.
It’s hard to blame Apple for this: She’s singing better than ever, even if her wariness keeps the audience at arm’s length. (Indeed, she looked at out at the audience as if at a shadowy figure in a dark alley.) She also tells the loudly adoring aud that she’s not going to talk much this tour and plans to avoid the outbursts for which she once was known.
But her low, husky vocals coil around the eccentric push-pull of her melodies, only to lash out in bursts of intense emotion. It’s the perfect instrument for “Machine’s” willful, angry break-up songs. But her band doesn’t so much support her as shove against her.
While Apple prefers to sing from just behind the beat, giving her phrasing a bluesy sway, the keyboard-heavy band favored a kind of strict, up-and-down rhythm that couldn’t be less sympathetic to the eccentric melodies and time signatures of “Better Version of Me” and “Get Him Back.”
Drummer Charley Drayton, who has played so well in other contexts, sounded especially out of place. Favoring short, repeated figures and overly busy cymbal work, in the early going he seemed to be playing in a completely different band than Apple.
Matters improved when Apple moved out from behind her piano; standing at the mic, her vocals became freer. When she spit out the litany of complaints in “Sleep to Dream” and “Limp,” her rhythmic, vehement bursts locked into the music the way a rapper navigates a flow about the beat.
While he has dropped out of Apple’s touring band, Elizondo’s hip-hop influence can be felt in “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song).” The band’s arrangement, just Drayton’s drums and synthesized rhythms against a single, held organ note, has a spare, skulking sound that wouldn’t be out of place on a hip-hop single, and Apple uses the space to deliver her most impassioned vocal of the evening.
But the evening’s best music came during the encore, when Apple eschewed the band. Backed only by Brett Simon on bass and opening act David Garza on guitar, “Extraordinary Machine” was performed with a breathtaking playfulness and ease, while the solo “Parting Gift” was the evening’s most emotionally direct statement.
Apple plays Gotham’s Nokia Theater Dec. 11 and returns to Southern California as the opening act for Coldplay at the Forum Feb. 4 and Arrowhead Pond on Feb. 6.