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The Caged Bird Sings 

The real story behind Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine isn't the label battles. It's how good the record is.

Wednesday, Nov 23 2005
You've no doubt heard the controversy: After previewing early demos, produced by sound whiz Jon Brion, of broody pop chanteuse Fiona Apple's third album, Extraordinary Machine, the corporate hacks at Sony BMG felt they had basically flushed away nearly a million dollars on a project with zero mainstream potential. So they got Mafioso on the singer, ordering a complete overhaul of the tracks. But the strong-armed remixes still failed to yield even the shadow of a single. Frustrated and unclear about her own vision at this point, Apple called in producer Mike Elizondo to help her regain her groove, which he did.

But now that she was psyched to go back into the studio to rerecord, the wannabe dons at the label allegedly threatened to shelve the album entirely unless Apple consented to submitting her work, one tune at a time, for company approval. The songwriter balked. Then someone leaked the original demos into cyberspace and her fans rallied, launching and protesting outside of Sony's Manhattan headquarters. The suits soon caved, and Apple was allowed to resuscitate her work on her own terms. The revamped CD officially hit the stores last month, debuting at the top spot on iTunes and at No. 7 (Apple's highest ranking ever) on the Billboard 200 chart. But get this: This whole soap opera that led up to the release pales in dramatic strangeness to both the artist and her music.

Despite a respectable tear out of the gate, Extraordinary Machine quickly faded in commercial appeal. A cursory spin reveals why: Even with its streamlined production, the album boasts few conspicuous hooks and almost no singalong melodies. In fact, much of Apple's phrasing defiantly shuns the predictable tunefulness of typical Top 40 fare, the singer opting instead for unusual, rhythm-based structures that tend to stretch standard bar lengths and defy formulaic arrangements. Her pitch-perfect vocal lines -- rich with soulful timbre, exotic vibrato, avant-garde interval leaps, and exceptionally subtle note-to-note shifts -- variously call to mind the impish attitude of rap, the oh-my histrionics of old-school Broadway musicals, and the bold adventurousness of jazz. In other words, Apple has transformed herself into something of an experimental art-pop composer, which is peculiar behavior for a bona fide star and self-taught pianist whose seductive, but largely tame, recording debut, Tidal, won a 1998 Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance.

Unlike that of most of her contemporaries in the singer/songwriter milieu (e.g., Norah Jones and Joss Stone), Apple's music is 100 percent fluff-free. Yet it's absolutely accessible for those willing to spend some time under the headphones, which is where her deeply personal lyrics come across with the passion and honeyed kisses of a lover and best friend. Mood-swinging between themes of self-empowerment and despair, tunes like "Better Version of Me," "Waltz," "O' Sailor," and the title track address heartbreak, longing, and renewal with sincerity, originality, and a feeling of intimacy that creates a rare bond between the artist and her fans, who seem, above all else, to want to protect her -- from her bad boyfriends, her bad record company, and, mostly, her bad self. Even though she's now a strong, independent woman of 28, Apple's also still the waif from six years back who sang on "Paper Bag" (on her sophomore CD, When the Pawn ... ): "Hunger hurts, but starving works/ When it costs too much to love." Thus, we want to feed her, fill her up with food and love, make her all better, release her from her sorrow.

But she's a tempest in a teapot, a whirlwind of capped energy, ever vigilant about being in control, dismissive of the comfort of strangers. She even bridles her fury (just barely) on the new album's most aggressive line: "What wasted unconditional love!" Though she often stews, churns, and belts out emotions in her songs with poetic fireworks, Apple has yet to let loose with utter abandon (i.e., she's no Polly Jean Harvey, whose raging recorded orgasms have scared men right outta their shorts). Just imagine the beautiful music Apple will make when she finally surrenders to the Big O. Until then, we'll savor the foreplay.

About The Author

Sam Prestianni


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