We gave it an A
Poor Fiona Apple; men just keep doing her wrong. First came the guy(s) who smashed her heart, resulting in a new batch of bitter, caustic songs. Then came producer Jon Brion, who decided those tunes would work best if Apple sounded as if she were trapped inside a calliope. Such was the effect, anyway, of the first version of Extraordinary Machine, the album Apple shelved (and that became this year’s must-own Internet bootleg). The record had its moments. In the title song, I loved the way strings daintily tiptoed around her declaration of eccentricities as if the orchestra was afraid to rattle her, and ”O’ Sailor” had a pained grandeur. But the album was clearly canned for a reason: It was a distracting mess.
With yet another man — Dr. Dre associate Mike Elizondo — Apple took another stab at the songs, and this time something clicked. The new, largely re-recorded Extraordinary Machine lives up to its name. Take the old and new versions of ”Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song).” Few tackle the standard is-it-love-or-confusion theme better: When Apple sings ”I need to be bled dry, to quit,” she gets at how enervating obsessive love can be. But in Brion’s hands, Apple sounded as if she were surrounded by nattering elves. The cleaner take on Extraordinary Machine is like a trip to a less cluttered haunted house, and Apple’s more nuanced delivery sticks the knife in, but slowly. It’s both charming and devastating.
Likewise, the rest of the album places Apple’s dusky voice and firm, almost defiant way with piano chords at its center. Cleansed of Brion’s overproduction (only the title ditty and the alone-but-happy ”Waltz [Better Than Fine]” survived), the songs’ craftsmanship and conflicted emotions emerge loud and painfully clear. ”Red Red Red” is more thoughtful, as if, in the time between recordings, Apple came to terms with the breakup. Without kitschy keyboards, the revenge fantasy ”Get Him Back” is pithier. Even Apple’s voice sounds more confident in these new settings: Listen to the way it trills up to a soprano in ”Not About Love” and, in the same song, rises, hesitates, and elegantly cracks when she hits the line ”I can’t…stop…falling…out” (of love, that is).
Apple may be pop’s leading drama queen (hell, empress). Yet paradoxically, she’s aiming, both here and on 1999’s beautifully twisted When the Pawn…, for something deeper, richer, more complex — alternative cabaret. On Extraordinary Machine, she is, thankfully, not at all interested in being part of the very ordinary machine that is modern pop.