Fiona Apple
Extraordinary Machine

(Clean Slate/Epic)

I have to admit I can't really remember how I became aware of Fiona Apple's music, but I'm positive that it was thanks to a written (as in paper) article, not 'cause of one of those videoclips in heavy rotation on MTV (Criminal probably being the most famous) which, combined with the proverbial "chance factor", made her debut album, Tidal (1996), a multi-platinum success. At the time, Apple had just turned nineteen, but the album sounded surprisingly mature. Of course, circumstances made one really suspicious: those were post-Morissette times, remember, when the colossal success of Jagged Little Pill (fifteen million sold? twenty?) had made Alanis Morissette the prototype for a long line of extremely young (and, it was hoped, extremely profitable) "confessional singers"; looking attractive didn't hurt, of course; while other qualities, where found to be lacking, were to be provided by the usual "song doctors" (and, nowadays, also by those pitch-adjusting programs à la Auto-tune).

Given the times, Tidal sounded almost prodigious. But even when discounting the "era factor", the record was good. A clean production (Andrew Slater), voice in the foreground, a propulsive piano (played by Apple herself), a strong voice, other instruments strictly as background. But the "dry" drums (Matt Chamberlain), keyboards, and the use of unusual instruments like vibes, dulcitone and marimba (Jon Brion, Patrick Warren) spoke of a "contemporary-sounding" album. Apple's musical influences were pretty easy to detect, but her melodic sense, her strength as a vocalist, and the fact that her songs were structurally not too simple (a lot of nice bridges) showed that she was willing to play the game on her own terms.

As it was to be expected, the majority of the articles about her were not really ready to take the musical factor into consideration, but even a short conversation, such as the split cover story that US Keyboard magazine (it's the issue dated November 1997) dedicated to Apple and the "patchouli goddess" Sarah McLachlan, showed the self-taught Apple to be more than a pretty face. And even if calling her dramatic lyrics "green" was pretty easy (but what about Laura Nyro, then?), her digging inside the maze of her feelings was a good alternative to the "physical activity" school that's omnipresent in a lot of today's "love songs".

Three years later, Apple's new album - sporting a very long title, it's conventionally referred to as When The Pawn... - saw me quite puzzled: the album was more varied and mature than its predecessor, the songs weren't really commercial and they sounded as turning left and right with no warning; the arrangements were often surprising. But there was something missing, and the record failed to be more than the sum of its parts. At the time I thought most of the blame to be on Jon Brion, who had produced the album and played most of the instruments, Matt Chamberlain's inventive drum parts and Patrick Warren's keyboard work being the only links to the previous album; but after some time I began thinking that maybe the whole thing had been doomed from the start: Tidal's big success was indeed a problem, and there probably were too many conflicting desires in action. Repeated listening, however, showed When The Pawn... as an album of considerable charm, which brilliantly avoided being "Tidal pt. II". There were many brilliant vocal performances, such as the closing track, I Know, with Jim Keltner on drums and Greg Cohen on bass; and the piano-voice-and-orchestra Love Ridden. Quite less commercial-sounding than Tidal, When The Pawn... sold about a third.

A few years later, I heard that Fiona Apple was back in the studio. Her producer? Jon Brion. This I thought to be very good news, given the fact that Brion, now quite successful as a producer and composer of movie soundtracks, was the perfect man to keep commercial forces at bay; while being a good specimen of the "avant-garde for the masses" school, à la Beatles. But time passed, and no record showed. Then, rumors appeared that Apple's record company - maybe - had found the album to be extremely lacking in the "commercial potential" dept.

I was peacefully reading the most recent issue of Bass Player - the one dated January 2005 - and I decided to read an interview with Mike Elizondo. Elizondo is obviously mostly known as a worthy collaborator of Dr. Dre, and so an important element for the success of albums by people like Eminem and 50 Cent, but he's not a "one trick pony", as his very long discography shows. A propos of new projects, Elizondo talked about Ry Cooder's Chavez Ravine, on which Elizondo had played the double bass, and also about... Fiona Apple's new album! ("I'm producing Fiona Apple's next album, which we just started.") What had happened to the Jon Brion-produced CD?

It was exactly the same question asked by Fiona Apple's fans, who created a website called FreeFiona and who sent apples to Sony asking for the release of the "Brion album". Which suddenly - ta-da! - was all over the Web. It's only natural that there are many theories about "whodunnit". Some thought the producer - angry about the refusal - to be the culprit; Brion has said that this version of the album was not what he had given to the record company. Others thought that the record company was trying to determine the potential amount of success in store for the album by people's reaction. Funny as it sounds, quite a few newspapers and magazines reviewed this (officially non-existent) album.

Extraordinary Machine "Brion version" is a record that cannot be called "a pop masterpiece" only because the term has been made meaningless by too much mercenary use. Brion's superb string arrangements - recorded at the world-famous Abbey Road studios in London - are the perfect thing for Apple's voice, a distinctive instrument in today's panorama. One could mention the orchestra on the title-track, Extraordinary Machine, with its almost music-hall atmosphere, with its ironic bridge. The thrilling, film noir air of the tense-sounding Red Red Red. The agile Get Him Back and Better Version Of Me. The bluesy ballad Oh Well, with a pounding piano and excellent drums (I'd guess Matt Chamberlain) with a superb bass drum and strings and brass à la Beatles. O' Sailor is one of the high points of the record: nice melody, very good drums, strings, and a "heroic"-sounding bridge. Waltz (Better Than Fine) has echoes of Kurt Weill. The operatic Not About Love, another high point of the album, has dramatic string crescendos (Rossini?) and an even more dramatic bridge. Then we have Please Please Please: ironic, bitter.

This version never came out. Maybe it was really "too difficult for the masses"? If so, we really live in horrible times. Not commercial enough? Even the Elizondo version is not really "commercial", as in Top Ten. Of course, the danger here is that the reviewer - having listened to the unreleased version for months - will consider the new, unfamiliar version as worse only 'cause it's different. So I programmed my CD player to play the tracks of the new CD in the same order of the one I already knew so intimately, and the session started.

Elizondo has made no real disasters, nor has he made the album - or the singer - a caricature. He has "only" made everything banal, ordinary, in his trying to make the album less difficult to digest for a mass market (but remember: a producer never works in a vacuum...). But given the songs Apple writes - and the way she sings them! - the album doesn't sound commercial enough. Extraordinary Machine (the track) is the Brion-produced version, but the vocals sound as having been remade. The most rhythmic tracks - Get Him Back, Better Version Of Me, Oh Well, Window and Waltz - don't sound too bad; while the new version of Red Red Red, Not About Love and O' Sailor are really, really bad. Sometimes hearing Elizondo trying to replicate Jon Brion's arrangements using a different instrumentation it's almost embarrassing. The drum parts by Abe Laboriel, Jr. (he plays on the better part of the tracks) are fine, though they are not as creative as the deceptively simple parts played by Matt Chamberlain. Sounding almost amateur-ish, the parts played by Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson of The Roots are strangely inappropriate. The real surprise - meaning, bad - comes from Fiona Apple herself: on the Brion-produced album she sounded involved, communicative, while here she sounds as she's trying to recall the appropriate vocal attitude from memory.

And now for the important question: How will the album sound to those who have never heard the unreleased version? Hard to say, my guess being: not too bad, with some very good tracks, but not the giant step that six years after When The Pawn... one had hoped to be well within Apple's reach.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2005 | Oct. 20, 2005