Fiona Apple, 'Extraordinary Machine' (Epic)

6
Extraordinary Machine
Critical Mass
Label: Epic

by Andrew Beaujon

She's been a bad, bad girl. Six years ago, it seemed like Fiona Apple was out of our hair forever -- the doe-eyed ingenue delivered a sophomore album with a 90-word title, had a meltdown onstage in New York, and publicly railed against MTV and eating turkey at Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey!

But just when it seemed she was going to go the full Sinéad, Apple returned, sort of. We'll probably never know the full story, but the outline goes like this: For some reason -- she or her record label didn't like it, sunspots, an early frost -- her long-delayed third LP was delayed yet again while she rerecorded it with a different producer. Angry fans sent Epic crates of foam apples to express their displeasure and, just for good measure, made much of the first draft of the album, which they'd somehow obtained, available for download.

And now, in what may turn out to be a marketer's dream come true, everyone from the merely curious to die-hard fans who know how much it costs to send fake Winesaps to New York City is invited to compare those leaked MP3s to the Real Deal, Apple's third album, reimagined with the help of Mike Elizondo, who co-wrote "In Da Club" and "Just Lose It."

And -- it hurts to say this -- but while you were out, Fiona, some of us have moved on to Nellie McKay, whose work Extraordinary Machine seems to resemble, rather than the other way round. From the kooky, Raymond Scott–esque orchestration of the title track (one of two relics from the original LP produced by Jon Brion) to the way Apple swings from girly to sassy to va-va-voom in that full voice of hers, an extraordinary machine if there ever was one, well...it's kinda been done.

But, hey, let's not get hung up on chickens and eggs here. Elizondo's zippy production effectively pushes Apple's tendency to plod. The leaked version of "Oh Sailor," for example, is a pallid, overly bassy dirge; the new one is a peppy thing of beauty spiced up with strings and vibraphone, though nothing like Brion's usual kitchen-sink approach. But Elizondo's hardly dumbed Fiona down for radio --"Get Him Back" is as quirky as "Red Red Red" is dark.

Apple has reined in her fondness for fingering her thesaurus -- now she tempers portmanteau phrases in, for example, "Not About Love," where she blathers "I should fall for the kingcraft of a meritless crown" before redeeming herself with brassy earthiness, half-pouting, "I miss that stupid ape." Still, Apple's throwaway lines are better than most artists' best choruses: "You looked as sincere as a dog," she tells one unfortunate beau in "Parting Gift," describing him as a "silly, stupid pastime of mine." Don't you wish your girlfriend were a freak like her?

Extraordinary Machine lives up to its name most when Elizondo echoes Apple's cartoon spookiness on "Tymps," which sounds like a '60s Disney soundtrack left out in the sun. Carnival organs drone and vibes clunk the beat as Apple puts on her best, most demented music-hall persona, somehow imbuing lines such as "I'm either so sick in the head I need to be bled dry to quit" with humor, and you can almost see giant spiders in top hats hoofing beside her.

"Fiona X" -- Chris Rock's nickname for Apple after her fiery speech at the VMAs eight years ago -- is so 20th century. The Fiona of today knows she's got to reach out beyond the fervent folks on her message boards. "I am likely to miss the main event / If I stop to cry or complain again," she reminds herself in the aptly named "Better Version of Me." Let the damn wind dry your tears, girl. You may be "good at being uncomfortable," as on the title track, but dang if you haven't made us miss you after all.

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