Thursday, June 27, 2019

100 Albums: "Extraordinary Machine" by Fiona Apple

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Fiona Apple
Title: Extraordinary Machine
Released: 2005
Genre: adult contemporary jazz pop


I was a fan of Fiona Apple's album When The Pawn... but had kind of forgotten about her by 2005. So when I happened to spot a new album from Apple--her first in six years--on the rack at a Best Buy, I excitedly picked it up and popped it into the player. I listened to the eponymous opening track, and my initial reaction was "What the hell did I just listen to?" After that song, the over-compressed drum machine kicked in and it started to sound more like the Fiona Apple I was familiar with, and by the time I got to the end I was completely won over. It got me wondering why there was such a gap between the two albums. It turns out Extraordinary Machine was finished and ready to be released in 2003, but it sat on the shelf for a few years. The reasons aren't known, but it's widely believed that the label didn't have much confidence in it. In the intervening years, the album was re-recorded and polished up and finally released at the insistence of ardent fans who knew that it existed and just wanted to spend money on it!

Extraordinary Machine leans hard into Apple's strengths. Her jazzy piano compositions are filled out with bouncy marimbas, horns, and leslie'd organs. Her deep, smoky voice is front and center without doubling, harmonies, or really any noticeable effects on it. She's a dynamic singer with a charismatic voice, and you can very clearly hear everything from her gentle whispers to her rapid-fire vibrato. And of course, there are the playful lyrics. Apple turns phrases with the best of them and does some delightful things with meter. Better Version Of Me opens with the line "The nickel dropped when I was on my way beyond the Rubicon." See also the chorus from that same song: "After all the folderol and hauling over coals..." Tymps (The Sick In The Head Song) has this great little turn: "To keep in touch would do me deep in Dutch." The subject matter is pretty typical for Apple's work: the uglier sides of relationships. Oh Well has her comparing a partner to "a hypnic jerk when I was just about settled" and lamenting "What wasted unconditional love." There's also an undercurrent of ire at audiences who only want "something familiar, something similar to what we know already" (Please Please Please). But even so, it manages to be an optimistic album, about taking the lumps and turning them into something positive. The closer, Waltz (Better Than Fine), has her instructing the listener: "If you don't have a date, celebrate, go out and sit on the lawn and do nothing."

It's really a remarkable record. It's a little challenging, but it's built on solid pop fundamentals and feels earnest and personal.

Further Listening: When The Pawn... is an excellent album and it would be on this list if not for my one-album-per-artist rule. The album that came after was The Idler Wheel... and it's okay. As for her debut, Tidal, I could never really get into it. Sleep To Dream was an unremarkable single, and while Criminal is a good song, but it's hard to separate from its scandalous music video. I mean, green shag carpeting, who does that?

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