October 20, 2005

Fiona Apple: Extraordinary Machine

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You’ve probably heard about the various hoops Fiona Apple has had to jump through in order to release her newest album in six years, Extraordinary Machine. The first version of the album was leaked onto the Internet late last year, only to be nixed by Apple’s record label Sony. Originally produced by longtime pal Jon Brion (also her collaborator on When The Pawn-), what was to be Apple’s crowning achievement was rumored to be too inaccessible for commercial success. Apple caved and re-recorded Extraordinary, this time under the supervision of hip-hop producer Mike Elizondo. The final result is sleeker, sparser and unquestionably more TRL friendly. But, as Apple is quick to remind us, this is not just any “pop” album and her songs seamlessly shift from waltzes to pseudo-rap to piano ballads.

Opening track “Extraordinary Machine” sets a completely unexpected and lighthearted tone. One of the two Brion contributions, “Extraordinary” is immediately emblematic of Brion’s work that marked the schizophrenia of When The Pawn… Apple even strays from her trademark husky vocals and attempts a coquettish falsetto with surprisingly successful results. The track serves as an opening monologue for Apple’s audience (“If there was a better way to go / Then it would find me”) and she cheerfully reminds us that this album is as much her brainchild as it is the commercial vision of Sony.

Perhaps owing to Elizondo and the jazzy contributions of The Roots drummer ?uestlove, a hip-hop flavor is bravely explored on Extraordinary. Building upon the precocious “Sleep To Dream” from debut album Tidal, “Tymps” is a trip-hop infused track highlighting Apple’s full-fledged potential for seduction. The staccato, rap-like delivery of lines in “Not About Love” and the alternately frenetic and lurching percussion seem to find inspiration in both hip-hop and jazz.

“Window” and “Get Him Back” are some of Apple’s best work to date. Both retain Apple’s characteristic skittery and claustrophobic piano chords that relentlessly drive the song forward, while resting comfortably alongside Apple’s tenuous yet velvety alto. Instantly catchy and carnival-esque, “Get Him Back” is a sly narrative of redemption and empowerment. Unfortunately, while the contagious energy of “Get Him Back” is nicely sustained with the ominous sea ballad “O’ Sailor,” the momentum built by “Window” is dropped with the mediocre, predictable “Oh Well.” The album continues to be uneven with the unrelenting tag team of “Please Please Please” and “Red Red Red.” “Please” is uncomfortable and effected while the unnerving repetition of “Red” is too awkward to enjoy. Without real structure, the tracks meander, swell and crash without any convincing purpose.

The help of both Brion and Elizondo are needed to flesh out Apple’s confident yet complex proclamations and each producer provides a remarkably different take on her intimate and disarming songwriting. Though some tracks clumsily fall short, Apple’s enthusiasm and clarity of vision is infectious: “Here it comes,” Apple crows. “A better version of me.”

Archived article by Natasha Pickowicz
Sun Contributor