In my eyes, the Disney movie franchise started going downhill with the release of The Little Mermaid. What does this have to do with Fiona Apple? I’ll get to that. As opposed to most of its predecessors in the Disney canon, this film completely subverted the message of the original story. In Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, the unnamed little mermaid does indeed fall for a prince, but aside from losing her voice, her magically transformed legs and feet provide pain with every step. Rather than the mermaid ending up with the prince happily ever after, she is betrayed by him, and she has the choice of killing him to return to the sea or death. She chooses death (although you’ll have to read the story to see what twist is thrown in). But besides the twisting of the story, there is also the added idea that the prince falls in love with Ariel’s voice, and her voice only. (Apparently they didn’t know about phone sex scams back in the day). But after hearing Fiona Apple’s latest album, Extraordinary Machine, years in the making, I can almost understand. The difference is, there are the added elements of Apple’s musicianship and her poetic lyrics to make the package complete.
The story behind Extraordinary Machine is already almost legendary. Having started to record with When the Pawn… producer Jon Brion, a friend and collaborator with her ex-boyfriend, filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, both Apple and her label Sony/Epic found the recordings too busy to be accessible enough for the public. The album was shelved, with reports varying as to whose choice that really was, leaked onto the internet, and started a ‘Free Fiona’ campaign directed at the label. Due to the overwhelming response of the ‘inaccessible’ version, Apple gained the confidence to try again, this time with Mike Elizondo, most notably known as a bass player for numerous acts, and only more recently a producer for such hip-hop acts as Eminem and 50 Cent, having made the track “Lose Yourself” into a worldwide hit. And now, finally, we have the finished product, and what a product it is!
Having wanted to reestablish herself as a musician and an artist with a wide vocal range, going with a hip-hop producer might have been the best choice. Why? Think about most hip-hop, or I should say most `good’ hip-hop. The music acts as a backdrop, a blue screen for the vocal and lyrical flexibility to shine and perform its acrobatics. This is what Apple needed, and this is what Apple got. In a way, Extraordinary Machine is symmetrical. The album starts and ends with the two remaining Jon Brion productions, and inside those ellipses are two tracks featuring Elizondo on bass and ?uestlove on drums. While people will debate endlessly on which of these pairings they prefer (for the record I love the Brion bookends with the title track being a particular favorite as a mix of Winnie the Pooh’s “I’m Just a Little Black Raincloud” as sung by Billie Holiday), it is the middle part of the album, the remaining eight tracks that are the most consistent and stunning.
“O’ Sailor” acts as somewhat of a follow up to Tidal’s “Shadowboxer” in style, smoky and jazzy, yet during the choruses still retains some of the carnivalesque flourishes of its former handler. During the verses, however, everything but Fiona and her piano are stripped back to their essentials, leading her to show off her vocal range, and causing me to fall in love with her all over again. “Tymps (the sick in the head song)” is one that definitely bears Elizondo’s urban stamp, bouncing along with handclaps and slight strings before getting balls-out funky in the bridge. Apple’s pacing makes me wonder what Brion’s version sounded like as they would complement each other well, but, as the true star of the album should be Apple, we might be able to venture a guess as to which version more strongly features her presence. “Parting Gift,” possibly about her broken relationship with P.T. Anderson, is the only solo piano track on the album and, as such, stands out quite magnificently. “Please Please Please” is one of the more memorable tracks from the album, with its sixties rock meets hip-hop style chorus, while its likewise tripled follower “Red Red Red” is haunting and sorrowful with ghostly keys floating behind Apple’s emotionally charged words.
“Pride must suffer pain.” This is what the little mermaid’s grandmother says to her when adorning her with oyster shells, and the adage acts as the moral for the entire Andersen story. Attach this saying to any part of the process of Extraordinary Machine and it might be apt. Whether it is Jon Brion’s pride in his overly intricate production work which led to his firing, Sony’s pride in not releasing an album they see as being too much for the public to dissect (take a hint from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, guys), or Fiona Apple’s pride in wanting her voice to be front and center (which, in my opinion, an album with just Fiona and her piano would have done the trick nicely), there was much pain involved in the making of this album. The finished product can be seen in either the fairy tale or the Disney way as well. Fiona suffered adversity and transcended it, although not in the way that most thought she would, or some might see it as Fiona having her happily ever after. Either way, Extraordinary Machine is an extremely listenable album that showcases the vocal and lyrical talent of a true visionary.