Fiona Apple - Extraordinary Machine
It’s honestly the first time I’ve paid that much attention to Fiona Apple. I heard the single off her first album, “Tidal,” and immediately wrote her off as a slightly edgier version of every piano playing rock chick that was coming out in the mid-90s, something for the Lilith Fair crowd when they were in a rare angry mood, and nothing more. The lyrics were interesting, but that was the most I’d give her. I never heard the rest of the album, I rolled my eyes at her “this world is bullshit” diatribe on whatever awards show that was, and I forgot about her around the time her second album was released to widespread indifference. I was a bit surprised to hear people bringing up how it had been such a long time since she did a record; I was surprised anyone still gave a shit.
Which is why listening to “Extraordinary Machine” has been a surprising and enlightening experience. From the evidence presented, the people who cared about a new Fiona Apple album were right, and I have been missing out. I’ve only played it a few times, but the big surprise so far for me has been how much better I like the released version than the scrapped Jon Brion version. I expected to feel the opposite, to find the redone version superfluous and unnecessary, especially since I generally love anything Jon Brion touches. In fact, on a lot of the rerecorded versions, there are crucial differences, and these differences often push the songs over the top from enjoyable but nothing special to brilliant and, er, extraordinary.
The Lilith Fair categorization I used to throw Fiona Apple into has nothing to do with how she actually sounds here. There are elements of blues and jazzy torch singing here, but they are incorporated into a sound which takes its greatest part from the intelligent yet off-kilter school of singer-songwriter music that began with guys like Leonard Cohen and is best exemplified currently by Rufus Wainwright. Fiona Apple may not sound all that much like either of those guys at any particular moment, but I can’t help but think of them as I listen to this album. There is an obvious kinship there, even when it doesn’t manifest itself overtly.
The title track and opening song on the album is one of the most interesting things here; it has no real elements of rock music to it, and sounds like it could have been performed as a sex-kitten type number by one of the pre-rock female vocalists of the early 50s (think Eartha Kitt singing “Santa Baby”). But the lyrics strike a bitter contrast to the sound of the music, as Fiona tells her detractors to kiss off through a matter-of-fact acknowledgement of her flaws and problems, and a subtle yet biting assurance that she doesn’t need anyone’s help in dealing with them, thank you very much. Sample lyric: “I seem to you to seek a new disaster every day; You deem me due to clean my view and be at peace and lay. I mean to prove I mean to move in my own way and say: I've been getting along for long before you came into the play.” In the end, she says, she doesn’t care what you think of her. “Be kind to me, or treat me mean: I’ll make the most of it, I’m an extraordinary machine.” The fact that the released version of the album opens with this track immediately sets it above the Jon Brion-produced version, which places the song tenth out of 11. It’s a perfect opening track, setting the tone and acting as a manifesto for the entire album.
The rest of the 12 tracks here (including one that didn’t appear on the Jon Brion version of the album) are more conventionally rock-based, structuring themselves around Fiona’s powerful voice and bluesy piano playing. And the lyrics… the lyrics are brilliant. Good lyrics aren’t enough to keep me around if the music sucks (see Ani DiFranco), but they can definitely make a good song better, and they do that here, on almost every song. I’m not too into the synthetic-sounding instrumentation on “Tymps”, though Fiona’s voice always sounds right and therefore makes it at least bearable. But the real star here, the song that’s been getting the most of my attention, is “Oh Well.” It’s a song about loving someone who is really just interested in controlling, getting what can be gotten and then moving on. This song is the reaction of an intelligent girl who seems more sad to see things turn out this way than angry; she knows she set herself up for it, but it’s still disheartening, because in the end the thing that hurt her the most was her willingness to trust and be vulnerable. She wants to believe in love, and she does, but what’s the point when the other person doesn’t? There is maturity in the song’s resolution, though; instead of giving up completely on love, and proclaiming dramatically how she will never expose her heart this way again, she shrugs and prepares to move on. Oh well.