“Let’s Dance was Niles idea of how a Bowie album should sound like,” David Bowie said once describing why he once again worked with producer Nile Rogers on Black Tie/White Noise. I thought of this quote while I was listening to both versions of Fiona Apple’s “extraordinary” new album. We all know the history; a few years ago Apple went back into the studio with When the Pawn producer Jon Brion and cut ten tracks. Unsatisfied, Apple decided against releasing the album. She then went back after taking a musical sabbatical and re-recorded a majority of the tracks with producer Mike Elizondo. Only two songs survived from the Brion Sessions, “Waltz” and the title track. Still, this never-ending debate will live on to which mix of Extraordinary Machine is the definitive version.
From the outset of the now infamous Brion Sessions, “Not About Love” is the definitive mix. Brion layers Apple’s piano/vocal with his trademark beautifully sinister string arrangement to augment the song with an intimate power missing from the Elizondo mix. I like the fact you can hear Apple pound on the piano on the breakdown. I also adore the way Brion’s strings strike back after she sings “This is not about love/because this is not love.”
“Better Version of Me” is my other favorite track. Brion’s version begins with a little cymbal; I hear this intro as an ironic musical ode to Lennon’s Double Fantasy and John’s song “Starting Over.” “Better Version” then turns into a musical steam train that grows vibrant as the song moves to its extraordinary conclusion.
The most dramatically different song that appears on both versions is “Used to Love Him (which is now for some reason called “Tymps (the sick in the head song).” Brion’s version has so much more depth. Judge for yourself, but the new mix sounds so stripped and lifeless. Brion’s production makes the original track have a funky psychotic carnival sound that’s like nothing I’ve ever heard. The unusual aura lifts the song from being just another “I don’t love you anymore” song into something more disturbingly exquisite.
The only misstep on the Brion Sessions has to be “Window.” And it’s not really his fault. Fiona’s vocal is so flat that makes you want to press skip on this song. Even though Brion’s eclectic musical backdrop still makes this quite the listen, this is one of the only songs that soar on its new incarnation. Score one for Elizondo.
I love the little noisy effects that Brion layers through out, just listen to “Get Him Back.” After Fiona sings one line, Brion adds little organ splashes after Fiona’s fiery lyrics. Jon’s uncanny musical touches like this make the Brion Sessions the most unconventional Fiona Apple recording ever. It’s a gutsy, elegant, post-modern dysfunctional symphony and an uncompromising look inside the musical voice of one of today’s unsung chanteuses. I prefer Brion’s version of the album, simply because of his eerie production. With his help, Fiona has surpassed her contemporaries with an album that not only speaks to her devoted fan base but also stands out with a timelessly powerful sound that’s way ahead of her time.
I believe Brion’s Machine is Jon’s idea of how a Fiona Apple should sound. It has Brion’s signature musical touches all over it. And this is possibly a reason that Apple re-recorded a majority of the tracks. It sounds like Fiona is singing on a Jon Brion album.
The difference between the Elizondo produced album and Brion Sessions is all in the soundtrack. Brion definitely took a more hands-on approach when he decided to sculpt a more dramatic musical landscape to match the intimate intensity of Fiona’s lyrics. This is why the Brion Sessions is the superior album. However, the Elizondo sessions are a bit more user-friendly. He toned down Brion’s rhythmic eccentricities that I thought made such an iconic musical statement. I am merely hoping that one day these astonishing mixes will see an official release. But the fan can decide for himself. You know where to find it.
Jon Brion – Punch Drunk Love OST
Rufus Wainwright – Rufus Wainwright
Aimee Mann – Lost in Space