I was taken with the girl the first time I saw her singing live on some TV show several years ago. The juxtaposition of her small, almost helpless frame and the hostage-like look on her face with the words and the sound of the words coming out of that little mouth were enough to put a pin-up in my head for days afterwards. I was almost afraid to actually listen to a full CD of the music. That sticky note previously placed on my brain had a footnote that said something like "danger."

Soon thereafter, my daughter brought home the Tidal CD and said something to the effect of, "You should listen to this." I think it might have been a threat. We were at one of those impasses that happen in the teen years, and it might have been her way to show me just how much I didn't understand her. Fortunately, it turned out that I loved the CD and now, several years later, we still listen to Fiona on almost every car trip we're forced to take together. On the last such trip, the annual Christmas trip to see the relatives who never bother to come see us and which makes us all at least once ask the obligatory question, "Why in the hell are we doing this?" she had the newest CD.

Expectations were high, since she and I had pretty much decided that there would be no outdoing When The Pawn.... I mean, once you've heard a song like "Fast as You Can," how could you expect more auditory delight from any one little white girl like her? And once you've felt the emotional sucker punch of a song like "Get Gone," how could you expect any more depth from a person her age?

I liked When the Pawn... better than I liked Tidal because it seemed as if she had become more of an adult when it came to the feelings she was such an expert in peeling back with little or no antiseptic. I may still like When the Pawn... better than this CD, but that is not to say that Extraordinary Machine won't stand the test of time even stronger than any of her efforts thus far. I certainly wouldn't bet against it.

The title song is the first cut on the CD, and it is without a doubt the most quirky tune I've ever heard her write. As with the best of her work, and this is important, you can imagine this song existing in a very huge expanse of potential timeframes. This is actually the most appealing thing about Fiona Apple's music. Bob Dylan has made it perfectly clear how he feels about this subject. He thinks that almost every modern American musician has totally lost touch with the roots of what American music means. If you saw Masked and Anonymous you know what I mean by this. Seeing him play a rousing version of Dixie is about all you need to understand how his music is rooted way, way back, and how he likely finds very little inspiration from any contemporaries. His backup band when he was in what was probably his prime was The Band. Have you ever listened to The Band? Tell me what era that music comes from. Somewhere in the American 1800s, right?

Along these lines, it would seem that Fiona has taken it one step further. You hear a song like "Extraordinary Machine" and you could imagine it being played in the late 1800s in Europe or in the early 2400s on some newly colonized planet far away from here. You just can't timestamp her best songs. Does that make her a better songwriter and performer than Bob Dylan? In some ways, yes, it does. She'll have to accumulate quite a large body of work before she can stand up on that mountain, but she's well on her way and I can only wish her all the luck in the world.

I will let kerawall, our resident E2 Fiona fan, give you her usually spot-on takes on the individual songs on this CD, and I'm sure she will delve into all the subterfuge and mystery surrounding this CD which might or might not have been in the can for years due to typical underhanded dealings by recording companies. Isn't it a great feeling on E2 to know that you can count on an excellent write-up on a specific topic by a certain user if you're just patient enough? As for myself, I'd just like to tell you what songs I find most valuable on here.


~~~ "O' Sailor", the third cut, has the best hook to my ear. The tune involves being the dumpee of a maritime lover. "Saying there's nothing to it and letting it go by the boards." She can turn what would be a cliché in lesser hands into high art. It's partly the sound of the song and it's partly the context of the larger effort itself. This happens time and time again in this compilation as well as her earlier work.

~~~ "Tymps" has the excellent image of, "Why did I kiss him so hard late last Friday night?" culminating with, "I just really used to love him / (I sure hope that's it)." If there's ever been a better song about make-up sex, I'd like to hear it.

~~~ I'm made a bit uncomfortable by the image of her opening her eyes while being kissed in "Parting Gift." I've caught a girl doing that before, and I hope I didn't look "just as sincere as a dog does." At the same time, I'm sure I've been considered a "silly, stupid pastime" of some lady somewhere. And I'm just as sure her friends were giving her this sort of advice, sung so sincerely, here:

"They said 'stop'
But we went on whole-hearted
It ended bad
But I love what we started."

~~~ The first song that caught my eye on here was "Please, Please, Please." It has that feel I fell in love with while listening to "Fast as You Can" on the previous release. As she's readily willing to admit, "My method is uncertain. It's a mess but it's working." Yes, it's working quite well and I can fully understand how this girl thinks it's just a mess at this point. I can imagine her imagining quite larger things in her notebooks and on her tapes at home, and I just hope her frail form survives the trip. The ending verse of this song pretty much sums up what she and Bob Dylan and I all seem to have in common when it comes to how we feel about most of the music we hear these days. The folks who don't care for this CD might be saying to themselves,


"Give me something familiar
Somethin' similar
To what we know already
That will keep us steady."


To which she would correctly reply,


"Steady, steady
Steady going nowhere."

Overview

Extraordinary Machine is Fiona Apple's third full-length studio release. It was formally released on October 4, 2005 after years on the shelf and a great deal of controversy due to the misconception among Apple's fans that Sony Music had shelved the album due to its lack of marketability. It was released on Sony's Epic label.

The album contains 12 tracks that, like those on Tidal and When the Pawn..., were all written by Apple. It is largely a continuation of her experimentation with the jazz influences that she hinted at on Tidal and then proceeded to explore on When the Pawn....

Extraordinary Machine was released to generally favourable music reviews, which many critics had not anticipated given the nearly two years of speculation and anticipation towards its release. It was not expected, in other words, to live up to expectations. The album debuted at number seven on the Billboard top 200. It was reported to not have done as well as either of her two first albums in terms of sales, however it should be noted that it has only been available for just over a year.

Tracklisting

  1. "Extraordinary Machine" - 3:44
  2. "Get Him Back" - 5:26
  3. "O' Sailor" - 5:37
  4. "Better Version of Me" - 3:01
  5. "Tymps (the Sick in the Head Song)" - 4:05
  6. "Parting Gift" - 3:36
  7. "Window" - 5:53
  8. "Oh Well" - 3:42
  9. "Please Please Please" - 3:35
  10. "Red Red Red" - 4:08
  11. "Not About Love" - 4:21
  12. "Waltz (Better Than Fine)" - 3:46

Track by track

Extraordinary Machine
The title track opens the album and is strangely unlike an astounding percentage of Apple's repertoire (and the rest of this album) in that it contains absolutely no discernable piano instrumentation. The song is reminiscient of something out of the 1930s in a way that's really quite difficult to describe. The music itself involves a rather quirky melody played on pizzicatto strings and woodwinds. There are also bells at random intervals; it sounds a lot better than I can possibly describe it. The lyrics describe someone who is unaccustomed to staying in one place for a lengthy period of time. She also sings of things being as they should. The melody remains constant until the bridge, which is at least an octave above the verses and chorus. Overall, she is proud of her ability to adapt, perhaps referring to her chameleon-like musical prowess.

Get Him Back
Classic Fiona, this song involves a dominant set of piano chords and an overlaying melody that utilizes the lowest notes of her lower range, probably unused since Tidal. Of all the songs on the album, this is one of the closest to standard pop rock; the percussion is far more like pop rock drumming than the jazzy percussion that exemplifies so many of her other songs. While the title seems to indicate that this is about love lost, the "getting back" actually refers to revenge. The "him" is an unnamed dude who let her down, and, well, he'd better watch out. The entire vocal part is, as mentioned, much lower than When the Pawn... gave us, though she improvises in her high range over the outro as the song fades out.

O' Sailor
Were there a song from Apple's previous catelogue to compare this one to, it would be Shadowboxer from Tidal. It centers around a piano riff that can almost be described as rolling, were it any more circular. The chords are all played on the low end of the piano and the melody somehow lingers innocently over the top of it. She repeats one question over and over throughout the course of the song, but her tone implies that it's a rhetorical question. She knows why he did it. Interestingly, unlike any other song she'd ever produced, the song ends with multiple layerings of her voice singing a variation on the chorus; the harmony almost makes it sound as though she has backup singers. While it's easy to compare the song to Shadowboxer from eight years before, it's much more mature.

Better Version of Me
Apple almost uses the piano as a percussion instrument here, as there's very little tonality in the low chords she hammers out throughout most of the song. Its rhythm seems to bear a blues influence, though her vocals seem to bear more of a similarity to a jazz power ballad fusion. The song is about change and self improvement. At one second over three minutes, it's the shortest song on the album and its relatively quick tempo makes it seem even shorter. The song's progress is clear over time; she doesn't make reference to the "better version" of her until the end, whereas it begins with references to herself as a "fickle person."

Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)
This has the single most interesting instrumentation on the album, beginning with what can only be described as an electronically generated xylophone and what sounds like people applauding in time with the rhythm. There's no identifiable melody in either the background or the vocal part; in other words, despite its undeniable catchiness, it's unlikely to become a mainstay on the karaoke circuit. The lyrics are in narrative form; she refers to a man she kissed last Friday night and tries to figure out why she did it; she wonders whether she is "sick in the head" until she admits what is likely or I just really used to love him, oh I hope that's it.

Parting Gift
Apple returns to the melodic piano and vocal lines she explored in Tidal's Never is a Promise and When the Pawn...'s Love Ridden. The verses are quiet and unassuming, whereas the chorus is delivered with loud chords and strong, self-assured singing. She manages to take the song in a completely different direction by using a major chord where the ear might otherwise anticipate a minor chord; by making this distinction, the song somehow becomes even more heartbreaking. She sings of a love that wasn't meant to be, but meant a great deal to her anyway. It ends on a seemingly unlikely note, with the melodic piano phrase that begins the song and introduces the verses, perhaps symbolic of a love that ended too soon.

Window
This song appears to deal with a woman learning that her significant other has been unfaithful to her, and trying to determine the best way to deal with the situation. She has the choice between ignorance, anger or some balance. The instrumentation is rooted in the song's percussion, which has a distinct tribal feel. The piano accompaniment echoes Criminal from Tidal and like both that song and When the Pawn...'s Paper Bag, Window make use of horns.

Oh Well
Oh Well is primarily piano-driven and relies on Apple's soaring voice. Its narrator is coming to terms with the loss of love, but not in a particularly emo way. She instead interprets the situation as being something that is unfortunate, but not a huge deal. The pairing of these concepts is somewhat ironic, the wasting of unconditional love, as she puts it, on someone who doesn't believe in it might generally be seen as tragic. Her response -- "Oh well" -- indicates that maybe it isn't worth getting worked up over after all. As is the case with Parting Gift, she takes what could be a very depressing-sounding song and, through the use of a few otherwise simple and unassuming major chords, transforms it into something that is somehow even more heartbreaking.

Please Please Please
It's hard not to call this song 'poppy;' its upbeat melody and instrumentation makes it incredibly catchy. It contains a structure that, although it lacks its rapid-fire delivery, is reminiscient of Fast As You Can from When the Pawn..., as dannye mentioned in his above writeup. She sings of wanting something constant in her life and asks for no more easy answers or major problems.

Red Red Red
As its title implies, this song uses colours as a literary device. Its instrumentation is very understated and it relies almost entirely on Apple's voice, which doesn't disappoint. The tail end of the chorus makes effective use of her range and stamina. The song is about how she doesn't understand various aspects of relationships, from the material to the emotional.

Not About Love In this song, Apple is trying to convince both the listener and herself -- but mostly herself -- that her inability to stop thinking about her ex-lover is not about love. By the end of the chorus, however, she quietly and sheepishly admits that this isn't the case. She then proceeds to rant about the particulars of the failed relationship in a rapid-fire Fast As You Can-esque musical lightning bolt. The song's tone and delivery change sharply between the two sections, a technique she used in Tidal's Carrion.

Waltz (Better than Fine)
The song is, as its title suggests, a waltz and is delivered in standard waltz triple meter. Its main instrumentation involves the piano, though it swells to include a full array of strings and horns by the song's end. The "better than fine" aspect surfaces in the song's lyrics, which focus on Apple's advice to (presumably) the listener. The song has a very warm feeling, and it's hard not to imagine actually waltzing to it.

Controversy/"Free Fiona"

Extraordinary Machine was originally supposed to be launched in 2003 at which point it was shelved. Apple's fan base understood this to be because her record label had deemed it to be "unmarketable," and had postponed its release until further notice. This was, in fact, not the case; the album had been shelved partly at Apple's own insistence. After hearing the initial cuts, she said it wasn't quite the album she wanted to release and chose to postpone it.

But hell hath no fury like devout music fans who considered themselves scorned. A group of enthusiasts, believing the album was being withheld because corporate suits didn't think it could possibly earn them sufficient profits, began to lobby for its release. They named themselves the "Free Fiona" (from the shackles of corporate America's insensitivity towards the arts, or something) contingent and began a snail mail and e-mail campaign. They demonstrated outside Sony headquarters and even sent label executives (you guessed it) apples (until post office authorities begged them to stop).

Apple herself heard not a word of this until reporters started calling to ask for her thoughts. These people are trying to get your record released, Ms. Apple! Doesn't that make you feel awesome? Apple was initially confused; she thought her fans knew that the decision to not release the album had been her own. After learning more about the movement, she decided she had to do something. In a column published in Oprah Magazine, she explained that she had always wondered what it would be like to have friends who would want her to be around because her presence would make things better. While the "Free Fiona" movement's intent -- to force a corporation to release an artist's work that they felt was being unjustly withheld -- turned out to be off base, it did have an impact in that it encouraged her to work on the album again.

The real reason for the delayed release was Apple's displeasure with the final product. Her longtime producer Jon Brion had produced the first cut of Extraordinary Machine, though she wasn't ready to release his cut. Rough tracks from Brion's cut wound up leaked onto the internet anyway; while Brion has told reporters that he feels that this was disrespectful to Apple's vision, she hasn't expressed any explicit problem with it and, now that her preferred version has been formally released, has hinted that she may consent for Brion's cut to be released as a sort of studio sessions recording, allowing fans to compare.

The Brion-produced version of Extraordinary Machine is really quite different from the final edition, considering that it includes the same songs and that the instrumentations are the only real differences. (Parting Gift is exclusive to the official release.) Brion's production is far more heavy on the string usage.

I'm sorry that took me so long, dannye.

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