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CD Review: Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine

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(A disclaimer: Because Ms. Apple did not decide to officially release the Jon Brion version of this record, I will not be discussing the Jon Brion version. This review is only about the official Epic release. Sorry to anyone who wanted to discuss the comparative merits of Jon Brion to Mike Elizondo as a producer of Fiona Apple.)

It’s been six long years since we last heard from Fiona Apple. Seriously, the last time I thought about Apple was when I was still in my wistful teenage years: a haze of badly written poetry, female singer-songwriters, and toenail painting. Back then, every song by an angry, heartbroken female singer seemed to speak directly to me – never mind the fact that I had not yet had my heart broken. Unfortunately, as I grew older and more self-secure, the fascination I had for songs of that particular canon began to fade away. So, when I found out that I was going to be reviewing Extraordinary Machine, I worried that I would not like this record simply because Fiona and I were now in different places in our lives. Thankfully, this is not so.

Fiona Apple is still angry, yes, but it is an enthralling and perpetually shifting anger. Here in Michigan, there is a saying: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” With Extraordinary Machine, if you changed the length of time to fifteen seconds, the saying still applies. Apple’s voice is intensely compelling because it is a mirror to her mind; every stray thought affects the tone of her voice. In “Get Him Back”, for example, Apple’s voice starts at a sultry, pissed-off growl, rises to a conversational undercurrent, and even finds its way into wistfulness…all within four minutes and forty-one seconds. Despite the fact that the Apple of “Get Him Back” is plotting revenge against three men who have wandered in and out of her life, you can’t help but sympathize with the pure raw emotion in her voice. By allowing us these charismatic glimpses into herself, she avoids the trap most female singer-songwriters fall into – allowing a single, overpowering sentiment to carry the album – and instead storms through each song with the everchanging humid luminosity of a late August afternoon.

The problem with this record, then, is that Apple is such a force of nature that I resented the intrusion of so many instruments. Many of the arrangements are too glossy and, frankly, feel as if the producer assumes everyone who’s listening to this record has ADD. Lush with Broadway showtune tinsel, the background music would probably be emotional within the realm of the stage; but when a singer has a voice as powerful as Apple’s, LET HER SHOW IT OFF. “Used to Love Him” is a key example of this: Apple’s voice sounds as if she’s a 1930’s night club singer, but the carnivalesque music is just so damn distracting that I’m compelled to start a website begging for someone to free Fiona from the horrors of overproduced records.

Reviewed by Megan Giddings

This review is also posted on The Modern Pea Pod.

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  • John

    Clue – Fiona writes the music too, and is very fond of her band and the sound they present.