Fresh and extraordinaryBy Gary Graff
At the start of her third album, and her first in six years, Fiona Apple reminds us that "she's good at being uncomfortable." Perhaps she can now tell us something we don't already know. The other forty-nine minutes of Extraordinary Machine remind us of the singer-songwriter's knack for turning discomfort into, well, extraordinary music. Apple has never short-shrifted the drama on her albums, but this one comes with even more than her usual standard.
The songs deal mostly with the end of her romance with filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia). But that happened several years ago, and the album that she and producer Jon Brion created was reportedly rejected by Apple's record label for not having any potential hit singles.
The set wound up being widely leaked on the Internet, spawning a "Free Fiona" fan movement, while Apple herself recruited another production team, Dr. Dre protege Mike Elizondo and Brian Kehew, to retool nine of the tracks and come up with one fresh piece, a solo performance called "Parting Ways."
As it turns out, it was a shrewd move on Apple's part. While the two surviving Brion songs bookend the album with ornate, chamber-like arrangements and skewed rhythms, the other songs sound fresh and enjoyably airy, with a combination of loops and drums, keyboard textures, horns and tricky tempo changes bolstering but never competing with Apple's signature rhythms. Some of her best and most mature lyrics ("I think he let me down when he didn't disappoint me") are at the core of these songs -- of heartbreak, revenge, betrayal, and ambivalence -- and what are basically voice-and-piano tunes are given heft with marimba accents ("Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)"), psychedelic soul pastiche ("Please Please Please"), playful pop energy ("Better Version of Me") and the cascading piano scales of "Not About Love." There's little that's machine-like about Apple's emotional bloodletting here, but extraordinary is certainly an appropriate description of this material.