Album Reviews: Extraordinary Machine by Fiona AppleDuring Fiona Apple's lengthy semi-hiatus, she was often imitated by young ladies on piano benches while keeping a low profile for herself -- until, of course, it came time to (try to) release Extraordinary Machine, her third full-length, originally slated to be produced by Jon Brion. Since Apple was known to have blown some minds during guest spots at Brion's regular performances at Largo in Los Angeles, the collaboration seemed to be ready to send loyal fans -- and Apple still has tons, you'd better believe it -- straight to heaven. Then all hell broke loose. Various accounts claim various dirty details, but the end result is a 12-song album with Brion's fingerprints only on the bookends. Comparing the versions is good fun for Apple diehards and for elitists in general (who will naturally prefer the Brion bootlegs regardless), but it isn't really very relevant. Every album, after all, goes through various incarnations, often including ones that vary dramatically from the final edition.
This doesn't let final producer Mike Elizondo off the hook, though, for taking the "even more is more" approach to production on tracks like "Oh Well," which focuses more on the canned orchestrations than Apple's lead vocal. Density also takes a toll on "Red Red Red," this time courtesy of an ambient electro backdrop that would be more appropriate for a singer in the Beth Orton mold. Elizondo disappoints, but don't cry too long on his predecessor's behalf. The Brion bookmarks crank up the theatricality and, accordingly, result in a pair of toe-tapping tunes that would be neat additions to a Brion soundtrack. But this, too, isn't necessarily what fans want from a Fiona Apple album.
The frustration, of course, is that Apple is a fine songwriter and a splendid vocalist. She doesn't need all the interference and accoutrement. She adapts herself well to the various approaches on the album, sounding sweet and whimsical on the opening title track, world weary on "Please Please Please" and resilient and brassy on the first-rate "Get Him Back." The grating, formulaic "Window" is the only outright dud, the nadir of an album that is consistently lyrically inferior to its predecessors. The emotional connection on Extraordinary Machine isn't as palpable as expected from Apple; it feels more like a performed album than a captured album. The result bears testament to Apple's increasingly considerable ambition and talent as a writer and arranger, but it also strips her work of some of its darkest and most seductive corners. - Adam McKibbin, The Red Alert
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