he amateur dramatics of her extended “between producers sulk” and the unprecedented show of support by Fiona Apple’s online petitioning fans that led to the label giving her the chance to finish Extraordinary Machine are proof enough that nearly all the songs here just weren’t ready enough. Apple’s difficult third album is a stillborn and patchy affair that leaves the aftertaste of regret.
Even after a few listens into Extraordinary Machine the musical paint quickly dries to reveal a thinly veiled cover-up job of a barrel load of average tunes done in a her now increasingly tepid and familiar style. Her familiar limited intonation, preferential treatment to the delicately played thunderous end of the piano and the stop/start song structure strain at the leash of niche appeal and look like a three trick waiflike pony. There is no defining feel (beyond the aforementioned clichés) or any notion of a diverse experimental record either; there’s just a lot of filler between the three great songs.
Maybe the vitriol’s being spat out a little thick but the messiness is so obvious that even Mike Elizondo’s professional sheen can’t save the majority of songs here, even if he should get credit for saving it from the clutches of (original producer) Jon Brion. His ditched efforts can be found at your local bootlegging shop or p2p site and they feature the same brand of idiosyncratic circus style damage that he did with Apple’s When the Pawn… LP. As the producer of the first sessions he lacked direction, audible energy, and had a propensity to add spoonfuls of unnecessarily quirky compositional tricks to the songs. The only evidence of his hand, apart from the acres of press his removal from the project generated, is the album’s title track opener and overkill closer ("Waltz (Better Than Fine)") both done in a thickly carnivalesque Disney ™ soundtrack style. Here Apple’s songs need neither a shoeshine nor a day at the fair, they need a good rewrite.
The only thing worth highlighting about the vast majority of the songs actual quality is their absolute run-of-the-millness. It’s surprising such an elongated period of writing produced songs like “Get Him Back,” ”Please Please Please,” and “Not About Love” that sound so absolutely premature. But where a track like “Parting Gift” might recycle a few of her tricks, it manages to stride outside her formula with lyrical strength and humour (and pounding on the keys chorus) lifting itself up and above the flotsam.
Whether “Oh Well” rides too close to the wind of pomposity and narcissism is a matter of personal preference—its cinematic string parts verge on the brilliant in the same way that Mercury Rev do when they break out those honey thick romantic strings and flirt like fourteen year olds with sentimentality. The way Fiona Apple’s voice wavers audibly against the slightly darkened piano line is an obvious trick, but here it seems like its raw heartbreak pulled back to a sense of resolve from the lip of tears. “Red Red Red” is probably the oddest and weariest number of her career flirting as it does with the ghost of Joni Mitchell’s Blue, her voice a thick and warm cough medicine lull. It doesn’t flaunt its idiosyncrasies but speaks with an honest and open heart over a sedated accompaniment. To quote the finest lyrics from this number would take a transcription of the whole song; it’s weighty without being heavy and mature and it’s a lesson without being detached and cold.
For the majority of the album it’s possible to get away with thinking its one of those unfortunate musical disappointments, but when you sit in the pale glow of something like “Red Red Red” its going to make a listener understandably bitter. When placed up against her musical peers, Extraordinary Machine comes crushingly short of the mark and in places you can almost (…almost) hear Rufus Wainwright taking this kind of eccentrically styled piano ballad thing and going one step beyond with it.
Even after all the high profile ‘lost album’ palaver that was involved in the making and release of Extraordinary Machine it remains a rudderless piece of work. It might be a bitterly disappointing listen, but don’t let it keep you from “Red Red Red.”