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Unconditionally Fiona

 

Fiona Apple: Extraordinary Machine

Sony, 2005

Rating: 4.0

 

Posted: October 4, 2005

By Laurence Station

Extraordinary Machine is Fiona Apple’s mix tape. The opening and closing tracks are from the original, Jon Brion-produced sessions finished back in May 2003. Smack-dab in the middle is a brand-new track that didn’t originate with the leaked version of the album. The remaining nine songs are rerecorded versions done with Mike Elizondo, whom Apple reportedly turned to when she decided the Brion sessions didn't quite do it for her.

Granted, a dedicated listener could assemble his own mix tape from the two releases, perhaps a more balanced collection featuring three or four additional Brion selections, adding a bit more carnival weirdness to this emotionally messy set. The Brion Extraordinary Machine is creepier, more threatening. The Elizondo retake is less about bizarre backfill and more concerned with pushing Fiona Apple’s voice and her fractured words to the fore. Hence, the official version feels more like a solo work than a collaborative effort, ala the delightfully indulgent, elementally engaging When the Pawn..., Apple’s previous release (also produced by Brion). Apart the two versions are about equal, combined they could have been amazing.

Thankfully, Brion’s recording of the title track made the cut on the Fiona-authorized edition, which means we get to hear woodwinds and a marimba tied to peculiar rhythmic shifts, which nicely complement chemically imbalanced lines like “But I'm good at being uncomfortable so I can't stop changing all the time.” This sets the passive-aggressive, manic tone for the entire album. Lyrically, Extraordinary Machine is obsessed with the notion of unconditional love in a world where very little can be considered unconditional. It’s those tangled, attached strings that cause so many problems for a young woman desiring a stable relationship in a mad, mad, mad, mad world.

Whether it’s a spurned lover who just can’t get over it (“Get Him Back”) or the callow dismissal of an idle plaything (“Oh you silly, stupid pastime of mine,” from the lovely solo-piano-and-voice number “Parting Gift”), Apple brings a wounded sincerity to each tune. She may only be happy when she’s miserable (“Everything good I deem too good to be true / Everything else is just a bore,” from “O' Sailor”), but she capably manages not to wallow in self-pity or reduce her words to bitter invectives against some vaguely defined, Y-chromosomal adversary.

Apple still has a tendency to trot out little-used synonyms (remarkably, her use of “folderol” on “Better Version of Me” also turns up on the latest Decemberists album. Wonder if she and Colin Meloy reference the same thesaurus?), and some of her rhyme schemes are self-consciously labored (as on “Oh Well,” which serves up the high calorie couplet, “What you did to me made me see myself something awful / A voice once stentorian is now again meek and muffled”). That Apple succeeds in integrating what could be show off-y, art-school tripe into the psychic fabric of her tormented worldview is a credit to her talent and chops.

The Jon Brion version of Extraordinary Machine pales next to his work with Apple on When the Pawn..., but there are some wonderful moments to be heard -- moments the commercially available rendition of Extraordinary Machine could have benefited from beyond the salvaging of a mere two tracks. But, it’s Apple’s name on the final product, and that’s what must be judged, even if the final result is a few steps down from extraordinary.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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