Thursday, August 23, 2012

Fiona Apple Remains Mellow On Extraordinary Machine . . . Surprised?

The Good: Developed, orchestral sound, Voice!, Lyrics
The Bad: A couple of the tracks are surprising duds
The Basics: Not exactly music for cheery people, Extraordinary Machine continues to develop Fiona Apple musically, with some lyrical fun.

Somewhere along the way, without me making a conscious choice in the regard, Fiona Apple became an artist whose works I pick up when she makes a new album. Recently, I bought her second album and the moment Extraordinary Machine was released, I purchased that. I guess I've been in a funk and Apple is remarkably good for keeping one in an emotional rut if they want to stay there.

Extraordinary Machine is Fiona Apple's third studio album and it seems the next logical step after her amazing debut Tidal and the slightly more produced When the Pawn . . . Extraordinary Machine continues in that vein with Apple's songs having more full music behind her. For example, the title track which opens the album has a full orchestra behind it and there are recognizable strings and bassoon. This is a far cry from the woman who ruled Tidal with her piano and voice, for the most part alone.

This is not to say that the instrumentals are bad or distract from Apple's talent. No, unlike "When The Pawn . . .," there is the re-emergence of Apple's voice as musical instrument. "Parting Gift" and "Better Than Fine" are good examples of songs that use Apple's voice on the same level as a musical instrument. Unlike her second album, though, the instruments seem to compliment Apple's voice rather than supersede it. Moreover, in the interest of full disclosure, "Parting Gift" does sound like it could have been on Tidal.

What is a definite sense of growth on Extraordinary Machine is Apple's lyrics. She actually unwinds and has some lingual fun on this disc. For example, "Get Him Back" plays with the three simple words in the title. Apple uses it to mean "get revenge" and "recover" and the skipping poetics of the song make it a pleasure to keep up. For those unfamiliar with Fiona Apple's works, much of her lyrics are somber. She does not spend much time on Extraordinary Machine being unambiguously happy. Far too often, there are conditions. Even in the title track, Apple sighs "Treat me nice or treat me mean" she's just going to take it because she can.

But far more meaningful is how much of Extraordinary Machine is about revelations and realizations. And they often have to do with breaking up. A great example is this from "Parting Gift:"

I took off my glasses while you were yelling at me once
More than once
- So's not to see you see me react
Should've put 'em, should've put 'em on again
- So I could see you see me sincerely yelling back
I bet your fortressed face
Belied your fort of lace
- It is by the grace of me
You never learned what I could see

Oh, you silly, stupid pastime of mine . . .

This is what happens when we have artists in pain with poetic ability doing the writing and performing: they can sell it. They can express themselves and wrench us. Fiona Apple does both quite well. She's a pro at expressing pain and drawing us in with it.

The only real drawbacks of Extraordinary Machine come in the forms of two tracks. How "O' Sailor" became the first single off this album will puzzle me until I can ask someone close to the project. It's almost the least interesting song Apple has done and it's a mystery to me that this would be the track The Powers That Be would think would sell the album. Even more baffling is why the video for the song is not on the dual disc.

The other track, "Red red red" which - I kid you not - follows "Please Please Please," is possibly Apple's poorest track. It is musically uninteresting and were it not for the concepts her lyrics explore and her voice, the song would be a severe disincentive to picking up this album. As it is . . . well, I have to say it's refreshing to hear an artist singing about how unremarkable diamonds are.

As for the dual disc aspect, the b-side of the disc (the DVD side) has some nice performances by Apple at Club Largo and they are pretty nice. It's cool to get a mini-concert. One of the nice things about it is that includes songs from both Extraordinary Machine and When The Pawn. . . As well, Apple's previously unreleased track "River, stay away from my door" is featured in that concert. Also, there is the music video for "Not About Love," which is good but Apple's disclaimer at the opening undermines the shock and coolness of the concept. Too bad.

Who will enjoy Extraordinary Machine? Anyone who likes a strong female artist with a deep connection to blues and jazz, delivering pop-rock. Sort of. Anyone who likes clever lyrics and a musically diverse album. If, however, one is expecting this to be Apple's explosion into popularity or a strong push forward in her quality, they are likely to be lukewarm in their reaction.

Why? Some of Apple's obvious vocal talents get murked up, even on some of the better tracks. A perfect example is in Extraordinary Machine, Apple goes soprano and the effect is more shrill than musical. Gone is the articulate soprano of Tidal's "Never Is A Promise." So, there are some steps back.

Still, it's better than anything else one is likely to hear on the radio these days. And the dual disc is definitely worth it for the video for "Not About Love" alone; the cost is not significantly different. The best track is the angry "Parting Gift," the weak track is "Red Red Red."

For other Fiona Apple works, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Criminal (single)
Across The Universe (single)
When The Pawn . . .
The Idler Wheel . . .


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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