1) Extraordinary Machine 2) Get Him Back 3) O' Sailor 4) Better Version Of Me 5)
Tymps (The Sick In The Head Song) 6) Parting Gift 7) Window
8) Oh Well 9) Please, Please, Please 10) Red, Red, Red
11) Not About Love 12) Waltz (Better Than Fine)
The Pawn…” Fiona Apple disappeared. She couldn’t cope
with the media, with her success, with her failures, with her relationships, or with her life.
She needed a break, and following the sometimes traumatic touring for her sophomore album, Apple quietly drifted out
of the spotlight. She made a brief reappearance in early 2001, as it was announced
that she split with her boyfriend of three years, director Paul Thomas Anderson, but ultimately Apple moved into a house in
Venice Beach and vegetated. She claims she just sat around and did nothing. For two years.
Some have said
that she suffered a breakdown, and it is true that it took Apple until the end of those two years to even furnish the house. She would spend her days sitting on the lawn, carving wooden people out of pine cones,
watching movies, reading plays, and just trying to figure herself out, with continuing her career the furthest thought form
her head. But friend and producer Jon Brion, after a few years of quietly pushing
her to get back into the business, finally compelled Apple to write again in late 2002.
The two lived together for a few months and completed an album entitled “Extraordinary Machine.”
But Fiona wasn’t satisfied
with the songs. She was proud of the work, but wanted a new taste…a different
direction. So Brion introduced her to hip-hop producer Mike Elizondo (best known for his work with
Eminem, Dr. Dre, and 50 Cent). Apple liked the contrasting style and eventually
decided that she wanted to rerecord the entire album with Elizondo. Her label
was not happy about the cost of rerecording each track (they had already spent around a million dollars on the Brion sessions)
and said they wanted Apple to submit individual songs for their approval (something Apple said was a humiliating and over-controlling
blow). Miscommunication on both sides resulted in Apple shelving the project. She claims she was ready to give up her career and filled out an application to do
volunteer work at Green Chimneys in upstate New York, which uses farm animals to bond with troubled kids. Instead though, she reverted back into her vegetable state for another two years. For those of you that haven’t been paying attention, that is four years of just sitting around.
Somehow in late 2004, versions
of the songs form the Brion sessions leaked onto the internet, were played on the radio, and led to some very vocal Fiona
Apple fans launching the website, freefiona.com to try and get “Extraordinary Machine”
officially released. The mass media caught on, and eventually her label (not
wanting another Wilco situation) gave her the money to rerecord the album with Elizondo.
The two spent five weeks working together and the album was released in September 2005.
Apple credits the fans at Freefiona for inspiring the completion of the album, but the ironic
thing is that the album the fans were rewarded with was almost completely different from the one that leaked on the internet
and got them so excited in the first place.
I have purposely
not listened to the leaked version of “Extraordinary Machine” so I could judge these songs on
their merit alone, without comparison. But it is very difficult not to wonder,
as the two best tracks on the album by far are the lone holdovers from the Brion sessions, and a third excellent song features
only Apple on piano, performing without any real production whatsoever. Overall,
the album is an eclectic mix of styles and sounds, but a bit cluttered in its genius.
Each song deals with failed relationships, but more than a little interesting, virtually every song can be seen as
a metaphor towards the music business in general, and Apple’s situation specifically.
The opening title track is
a weird and wonderful, tiptoed, poppy, jazzy, cabaret, 1920s show tune. Sassy,
cute, stylish, playful, bright, lurking, sophisticated, tongue-in-cheek… it is just absolutely compellingly eccentric. Apple’s voice is kitten-like in some parts, impish in others, and contrary to
her previous albums, never distraught. Jon Brion’s production anchors it
all and never intrudes on the song, just casually mingling unusual instruments together in what just might be Apple’s
most extraordinary song. Unfortunately, “Get Him Back” follows. The much more contemporary piano strut is just as playful as the opening track, but
not nearly as memorable. It features backward psychedelic splashes going in and
out of focus and the tune is just a blurry knockoff that sounds disjointed and confused.
The strange Old West piano fills in the middle are unusual and clever, and Apple’s high-pitched coda is amazing,
but at over five minutes, it is relentlessly too long and mundane.
somewhat tedious, five-minute track, “O' Sailor” begins with a creepy, out-of-tune piano pound, and a
stop-start melody. This is a much more focused effort with a dreary, runny-makeup
feel and Apple pens some typically inspired lyrics. The song is quirky and engaging,
but on par with the entire album, it is a little schizophrenic in the production. There
are portions that are amazing, such as the child-like choir in the coda, and then there are other parts that are just abysmal,
like the amateurish, cymbal obsessed drumming. Still, it has enough moments to
be considered a very good song. The ungainly percussion continues on “Better
Version Of Me,” a mischievous, curious number that succeeds despite the misplaced drumming. Tuneful, with attitude, this is a rock song, hard to get a handle on, but an easy track to like, with its
playful horns, liveliness, and fluid lyrics. This song, above all the others,
shows Apple having fun with her craft in an effort that isn’t meant to be taken seriously and thrives because of its
(The Sick In The Head Song)” is the most hip-hop number produced on the album.
But this is the most sophisticated hip-hop around, and still done in a cabaret style with funky instrumentation and
a sexy feel. Artsy and chic with an outrageous coda, this is just an unconventional
winner. “Parting Gift” follows and grounds the album. It is a standard Fiona Apple ballad, meaning tear inducing, elegant, and just harrowing. Vulnerable, spiteful, hard-hitting, honest… this tune is a completely solo performance
with only her piano and one of my favorites on the album. Another hip-hop song,
with a slight psychedelic atmosphere, “Window,” is a muddled mess.
There are parts that are stellar (including the horns, moody bass, and the amazing coda), but overall, there is just
too much happening and hardly any flow.
is more surefire Apple, with its confident piano, beautiful French horn, and piercing lyrics.
Here, her wit is at its highest as the lyrics are an emotional blast, accusing and hateful, with each phrase designed
to cut that much deeper. The amazing thing though, is as the end of the song
approaches…after Apple has just finished explaining how she wasted her unconditional love on someone who didn’t
believe in the stuff…she just shrugs it all off with an “oh well.”
All that seriousness, all that vengeance, all that disgust… replaced by an “oh well.” Call me a fanboy, but that is why I love her music so much.
Please” is a whimsical tune with an excellent chorus and a much more rock sound.
The business metaphor can’t be coincidental on this track as the lyrics must, at least in part, be ideas expressed
by her record label: “Please, please, please, no more melodies, they lack impact; they’re petty, they’ve
been made up already.” Overall, the song is excellent and offers an interesting
contrast with the subsequent, and similarly titled “Red, Red, Red.”
Slow emotion, with a haunting aura, this is a ballad meant to make you take notice.
And notice it please, because it breaks me down and builds me up and makes me sing out loud. Key lyric: “But it’s dangerous work trying to get to you too, and I think if I didn’t
have to kill myself doing it, maybe I wouldn’t think so much of you.”
About Love” follows and is the “Get Gone” of “Extraordinary Machine.” Like that song, it is somehow fragile and malicious all at once. The track actually seems like three different tunes blended together with its ever-changing tempo and switches
moods so often it is hard to know how to feel, which is precisely the point. Literally,
you’d be hard pressed to find a song that alternates speeds more than this, and while some might call it difficult,
it flows better than other tunes on the album, and is a brilliantly moving offering.
Out of the firestorm of “Not About Love” comes the closing, regal, Brion produced, autobiographical
“Waltz (Better Than Fine);” a tune with enough melody, piano pop, and orchestrated perfection, that Paul
McCartney would be proud to have created. It has that perfect blend…that
balance of lyric, instrumentation, and atmosphere that makes Apple’s music so charming, offbeat, and memorable. The middle eight is just so elegant…so moody, so delicate, so bouncy, so me. For the only time on the album, the drumming is ABSOLUTELY PERFECT, tellingly handled
by the legendary Jim Keltner. This tune, with its leave me alone lyrics, is just
an exceptional album closer.
After two producers, rewrite after rewrite, and
six years following her previous album (including four years of extreme vegetation), it is amazing Apple was even able
to release anything at all that she was pleased with, but it would still be very interesting to hear the original Brion sessions. Not that the official record isn’t inspired, and an artsy, colorful offering,
but it lacks the grace, fire, and passion of “When The Pawn…” Still, “Extraordinary Machine” is a quirky, grows on you work that proves
“When The Pawn…” wasn’t a one shot deal, and that Fiona Apple is one of the finest
songwriters out there.