Fiona Apple - Extraordinary Machine (Part II)

Oh blogspot, I'm sorry I haven't been giving you the attention you deserve over the most recent months. Truth is, I've got a lot of other writing projects that take up most of the time and energy I used to devote to you. And when I do have ideas that would be most properly worked out here, I'm often stuck without the time or energy necessary to properly explore them. However, for once, today I both have a thought and the motivation to express it. So for once, I'm updating. Try to contain your excitement.

Back when Fiona Apple's third album, "Extraordinary Machine", was released, there was quite the controversy amongst music fans as to which version was superior, the scrapped-but-leaked Jon Brion-produced original, or the mostly redone released version, produced by Mike Elizondo. I bucked the trend at the time, coming down solidly in favor of the released version. This judgment was made after listening to each version of the album maybe twice or three times, and since I've spent the months since this decision being told over and over again by friends of mine that I'm crazy, and totally blew the call, I decided yesterday to dig out the original Jon Brion version (which I dutifully burned, but never listened to again), and take another shot at it, to see if maybe I hadn't missed something.

As with the first time I compared the two versions, I found myself surprised upon first listen. Not surprised at how I'd made the wrong call the first time, but surprised at how right I'd been. If anything, having spent a lot more time with the released version in the months since I decided it was the one I liked better, I found the differences between the two much more obvious than they'd seemed at first. As should be obvious to anyone who read the original post on this subject, I was never a Fiona Apple fan before "Extraordinary Machine." I wrote that entry only a day or two after hearing the album for the first time, though, and what it fails to mention is just how much I ended up falling in love with "Extraordinary Machine", playing it frequently for weeks and months after I wrote that post. Listening to the Jon Brion version now, I can see exactly why I never liked her earlier stuff; despite a very powerful vocal and lyrical presence, Ms. Apple's music is often robbed of its power by the mellowness of the music chosen to back it up.

In fact, this jumped out and hit me like a ton of bricks no more than 10 seconds into the album. "Not In Love" begins the Brion version (unaccountably; I may have mentioned this in my original post, but it deserves to be re-emphasized that "Extraordinary Machine" is so obviously the song to begin this album with, I can't imagine how anyone would allow any other song to take that spot in the running order. What crack was he smoking?), and it's one of my favorite songs on the released version of the album (where it comes near the end). However, a lot of the reason is the powerful chorus of the song, where Fiona sings the lines "This is not about love, because I'm not in love" over heavy, clipped chords that she pounds out on the piano to forceful backing from the rhythm section. That rhythm section is abesent here; this version of the song is vocals, piano, and a string section, who back our Ms. Apple's furious exhortations with the sort of baroque chamber-pop that sounds like it could have been lifted from a Bernard Hermann score for a 1950s Alfred Hitchcock movie. Don't get me wrong, I love those movies, and I love Hermann's scores, but in this context, to call it inappropriate would be understating things quite considerably.

It's not like this is the only song with an impact that's totally undercut by overly mannered instrumental backing; the songs that sound closer to their released versions, such as "Red Red Red" and (thankfully) "Oh Well", seem pretty much fine, but most of the others are just as defanged as "Not About Love". "Window" is one of the worst, with hammered bells playing the melody line on the verses, as soft swing-ballad drums provide the only other sounds. Then on the chorus, a whimsical organ line disrupts the unity of vocals, piano and drums, and in doing so makes things sound jaunty rather than intense. And don't even get me started on the horn parts during the bridge. This is totally inappropriate for a song about smashing a window in frustration as a response to being told by a boyfriend that he's leaving for another woman.

In fact, that's my beef with Brion's production on this whole album: it doesn't set the right mood. A lot of what really worked for me where the Elizondo version of "Extraordinary Machine" is concerned had to do with the intensity of the emotions being expressed. The words and vocals are a big part of that, but they can't carry it on their own. When the backing music is too busy being cute, cheery, orchestral pop, the intensity is decreased and it becomes hard to get the full impact of songs like "Oh Well" and "Window". This version of "Extraordinary Machine" is worse for that fact, and I for one am thankful that Fiona realized this and went back into the studio to get everything right. She recognized that this album wouldn't achieve its full potential unless it was nothing less than a full-on kick in the guts. It's a shame so many of the critics missed the point.