It’s been six long years since the last Fiona Apple release, the phenomenal When the Pawn… (my #1 album of 1999). That masterpiece was produced by Jon Brion (also known for his work with Aimee Mann and now Kanye West) and as of a couple years ago Fiona and Jon had at least 11 tracks (which I heard, because they were leaked to the Internet) completed for the follow up. There’s a lot of hearsay as to whether Fiona herself halted the release of those songs or whether Sony/Epic claimed they weren’t fit for public consumption. Either way, it’s a crime they weren’t unleashed two years ago and that only two of those Jon Brion recordings made it to this official release of Extraordinary Machine.
The good news, though, is that the nine other excellent songs are all on here, too, and Fiona’s offbeat stylings and mannerisms are preserved. They were just re-recorded with a new producer, Mike Elizondo (best known for his work with Eminem, 50 Cent and Eve). His use of organs, keyboards, strings, brass and woodwinds is generally more hollow and synthesized than the lush, haunting and spacious rock orchestrations of Jon Brion. While at times disappointing, it leaves more room for Fiona to flex her songwriting and vocal chops. When she was 19 and even 22 her lyrics were shockingly precocious. Now that she’s older, her insights are less surprising, but still, no one writes more acutely descriptive, post-relationship reactions and sets them to such unforgettable tunes. Hearing heartbreak and confusion narrated by her achy, deep, dark and soulful voice makes you hope you never find yourself in the same place, but there’s a tangibility to her experiences that’s unsettlingly easy to identify with.
Some songs have become more focused through the Elizondo treatment, while others lost some of their punch. The biggest tragedy is that the previously titled “Used to Love Him” was the second best recording of her career (next to “Criminal“). Now as “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)” it’s still the best song on the album, but it falls quite a bit short of its old potential. Ultimately, it’s a shame it took a couple extra years to get a slightly inferior album. Flawed Fiona, though, is still one of the best things out there.
Heavy Rotation tracks: “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)“; “Extraordinary Machine“; “Oh Well“; “Better Version of Me“; “Window“; “Please Please
Medium Rotation tracks: The rest
Grade: A (Strong Top 5 Albums of the Year Candidate)
(As posted 10/10/05 on davepowersmusic.com)
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