Cat Fight: Fiona Apple and Brandi Carlile

The sailors say, “Brandi, you’re a fine girl…”
Fiona! Don’t look away!

It seems like just the other night I was telling a friend, “I’m really not that BIG of a music guy.”  Yet here I am writing about music again because in my head Fiona Apple and Brandi Carlile are having a huge Seinfeldian cat fight.  MEOW.

Both ladies seem to have been conceived in the womb with music in their heads and are known for their startlingly unique vocal abilities, and both have new albums (their fourths) that dropped this June, but that’s about where the similarities end. 

Though she’s roughly my age, it seems like Fiona Apple has been around forever and still to this day is the epitome of big-city, sad-eyed, late 1990’s grrrrrl angst.  It’s as if when she was a naif she decided to respond to the Grunge movement of the early 1990’s by scatting and writing the most densely complex lyrics only to be sung as if Nabokov’s Lolita was crooning old standards.  She defies categorization, and she’s probably one of the only artists working today who can still be considered “alternative”….ah…remember alternative music?  Meanwhile it’s hard to believe Brandi Carlile (not much younger than Apple) is delivering her fourth studio album as well, as she still sounds like a breath of fresh air coming out of nowhere (the wilds of Alaska I’m told) and is the epitome of small-town, folksy-countrified-rock that brings to mind flannel shirts before they were grunge, wading in cool creeks, skipping rocks and the 1970’s.  Fiona Apple is a tempestuous storm raging atop the surface of the sea while Brandi Carlile is still waters running deep.

I’m listening to Apple’s The Idler Wheel is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do (relax, her magnum opus from 1999 had close to 100 words in its title, so this is an improvement) as I type this and I can already tell I’m going to have to listen to it in full every night for the rest of the week just to digest it all.  With lyrics like, “But I ran out of white doves’ feathers to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth every time you address me…” in songs titled “Regret” you know she’s not the type of gal to listen to half-assed.  She demands you to take in every syllable, every intonation, every tortured thought, every plea. 

When Apple first burst onto the scene all those years ago she played with melodies, shifting tempos and vocal theatrics that were outshone only by her own wickedly clever lyrics.  The sum of the parts created a whole that danced around in your skull and haunted your non-listening hours almost to the point of madness (of the pleasing kind) and I’m happy to report her stylings are still as infectious as ever.  However, this time around, her songs are as stripped down instrumentally as a Jonny Greenwood film score (and at times as jarringly discordant) leading Apple to emerge as a storyteller as vulnerable as ever.  She’s that rare mixture of precocious confidence mixed with raw uncertainty and she will forever, it seems, find a way for boys and men to love and then not love her, resulting in broken hearts scattering the fields of war, and leaving Apple lost inside her own pretty-little, messed-up head. 

Ahh…Apple is a thing of rare beauty to behold.  When in her most innocently sexy of songs, “Anything We Want” she coos, “And the rivulets had you riveted” it’s the type of alliteration that makes this writer drool.  I dare you to get Apple out of your head.

Brandi Carlile, on the other hand, in her new album Bear Creek is about as laid-back and pleasing an artist as you could hope to find these days.  Carlile, with her Patsy Cline meets Janis Joplin voice, has possibly the most powerful vocal chords in the bizz today…and it’s what first helped her breakthrough in 2007 with The Story, whose title song was a revelatory and epic folk-rock fable.  What makes her so refreshing this time around is how much restraint she is able to show in Bear Creek.  She’s still able to show a lot of ‘tude in songs like “Raise Hell” – an addictive folk-rock anthem that you wish people would have the guts to play on the radio – but more often than not she holds back. 

While I found Carlile’s lyrics in The Story to be occasionally overly simplistic and traditional (and the one thing that held that album from true greatness), Carlile has seemed to have matured in that department…and in fact, in every way possible.  When this guitar-hugging lass takes to the piano in the radio-ready “That Wasn’t Me” – it’s the type of soulful pop cross-over hit you wish every small-town gal with a killer voice could achieve.  Given her personal history, when she wails, “Did I bring shame on my family?” followed up by the rebuttal later on with, “Do I make myself a blessing to every one I meet?”  it packs the kind of universal emotional wallop you rarely find in any mainstream artist.  Carlile brings her whole self to her music, and it’s an inspirational thing.

Overall this is a polished (some might complain over-produced), rock-solid, “artist in their prime” type album that should help Carlile win over a tidal wave of new fans if there’s any justice in this damned universe.  Something tells me Carlile don’t give a lick, though, and she’s gonna keep doin’ what she’s been doin’ since she could first make a sound.  She’d be just as happy at a campfire as she would be at Carnegie Hall.

Damn these ladies…their latest works will be competing for the top spot in my playlist for a long time leaving me riddled with violent mood swings from Apple-induced agita to smooth Carlile coolness. 

So who, you ask, would win this cat fight?  On the surface it would seem Carlile’s rough-and-tumble, bonfire-and-guitar, putting-rocks-in-her-snowballs persona would knock the hell out of Apple’s angst-fueled, city-slicker waif.  But Apple would scratch.  Then again…Carlile comes across as such a genuinely nice person in her songs, she would probably look at Apple as someone to compare poetry and stories with – a kind of distant, third-cousin, kindred spirit. 

Carlile would probably find something to love in Apple.  And Apple…she wouldn’t have any of it. 

Lucky for us listeners, we don’t have to deny ourselves a single joy when listening to either lady’s sweet, sweet songs.



  1. I gave Fiona’s latest album a listen on the NPR website, and nothing jumped out immediately at me. Though the same can be said about every Tool album, which I listen to religiously now. I adore her to no end, and “Paper Bag” has to be one of my all-time favorites. Her music has a lot of soul, and unfortunately, it seems to be the case that the musicians and singers with the most soul usually have had theirs tortured.

    A female singer-songwriter I’d encourage you and everyone to check out is Sharon Van Etten.

    • Hey, Van Etten is from Jersey! Thanks for the tip. I thought the same of Apple’s new one, so I listened to it a second time right away and everything jumped out at me, but especially tracks 7, 8 and 9 (“Periphery”, “Regret” and “Anything We Want”) – it’s as complex and riveting a trio of songs as she has ever produced. I still contend that “When the Pawn…” is one of the greatest albums of all time. I will never tire of it. I think her days with Paul Thomas Anderson during the making of that record really pushed her over the top. She’s always great, though. –DHS

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