Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Extraordinary (ghost in the) Machine

Play it: Fiona Apple Extraordinary Machine

I have to start with a confession.
I am a Jon Brion-head. As far as production goes, I think he can do no wrong. Knowing this, you can imagine it's probably hard for me to be objective about the release of Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine as this album has a huge ghost that will forever haunt it's existence, and it's a Brion-produced ghost.

You see, Jon Brion (who produced Apple's previous albums Tidal and When the Pawn Hits) produced a rough-mix version of this album back from 2002-2003, and if you know Brion, you know his rough-mixes sound ready for release. This rough-mix was mysteriously leaked late last year and even made it to the radio earlier this year (it's everywhere if you look hard enough.) Apple stated at the time that she loved it... but now says that it wasn't what she wanted. Is this revisionist PR at work? Well, this isn't a conspiracy site (yet) so I won't touch that (except maybe in the comments section.)

Brion's version is like a carmel corn ball with a chocolate center. It takes a lot of tasty chewing to get to the dark, bittersweet center. Labels hate chewing, so it makes sense that we all assume that Sony shelved it (since they play the part of the villain so well.) As the leaked version gained more steam and fans, Apple and Sony saw it commercially viable to give the album another shot, so Apple hooked up with hip-hop producer Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Eminem) who came recommended from Jon Brion, apparently. Meanwhile, in some sort of weird hip-hop exchange program, Brion co-produced Kanye West's Late Registration album, which came out recently (to rave reviews, thanks in part to Brion's production.) You'd think there'd be some awkwardness between Apple and Brion given all that happened, but they've repeatedly been seen playing together (MTV ReACT, most recently) and have been very chummy throughout (perhaps that's telling.) Brion's planning on playing in Apple's band on tour, and even Elizondo has tentatively agreed to join them on some dates.

This released version of Extraordinary Machine is, by itself, a pretty darn good release, based entirely on Apple's voice and songwriting. That's me w/o my Jon Brion appreciation hat on talking of course. The ghost of Brion's version, though, haunts this album in my ears. Where Brion's production felt organic and full of textures (strings, oboes, and more,) Elizondo's feels colder and yielding, with it's drum sequencing and use of synths. Two of the original versions made it (mostly) intact on to this released version, "Extraordinary Machine" and "Waltz (Better Than Fine)," and they, are to my ears anyway, the highlights of the album, showing the Apple/Brion teamwork - warm, organic and quirky. "Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)" is a reworked version of "Used To Love Him," and is a good example of one song that almost works better in the new setting, albeit with certain sacrifices. The drum sequencing at first annoyed me, but now I'm getting to like even the fake handclaps, and Brion's mellotron is still there throughout to hold my hand in this cold new environment. Another song that almost works better is "Red Red Red" which gets an even moodier take here. Other songs just don't work for me in this strange new produced world - "O' Sailer" and "Please Please Please" are the most blaring examples, with their slick synths, and Apple's more non-chalant vocal take... it's almost like she's heard the songs too much already and doesn't identify with the material so much anymore. She was much hungrier in her vocals with Brion, and while a pedestrian Apple is still pretty great, it's a shame we don't get her at her best. My hope is the album becomes a success, and Sony (or another label) releases a deluxe version of it later with the Brion produced tracks (cleaned up, of course.)

Bottom line... this is a really good album, and I highly recommend it. It's just not all that it should be... and the ghost of what it could have been will always hang over it.

The Midas touch (Jon Brion)

Another playlist:
The Hands of Jon Brion (songs produced by/played on by Jon Brion)

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drake leLane said...

1 Extraordinary Machine
2 Get Him Back
3 O' Sailor
4 Better Version Of Me
5 Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)
6 Parting Gift
8 Oh Well
9 Please Please Please
10 Red Red Red
11 Not About Love
12 Waltz (Better Than Fine)

Paul said...

I said pretty much the same in my review of her official release, on my site.

Overall, I do enjoy both versions and hope that the leaked version will see the light of day, in an official release sense.

Each is a distinct entity. I do enjoy the Tymps song over Used to Love him. Another one that I seem to enjoy a bit more then the leaked version is Window.

I do no like the new version of Red Red Red. On the leaked version, it and Not About Love were my favorite songs. It's a shame that the strings were removed from Not About Love. That added such an effect to the song.

drake leLane said...

Yes, "Not About Love" is fine example of how a song can lose it's power through different instrumentation. "Window" offends me less then most, but I find it to be the weakest song of the bunch, so I'm not as fervent about it.

Thinking about "Not About Love" again, I'm also puzzled by the track order... it seemed to make a great opener, and I guess it makes sense w/ the new version not to open w/ it because it's lost it's energy, but to start off with the title track is an odd choice. Because it's a Brion-produced one, it leads the listener in one direction, and then jerks him in another for the rest of the album. Awfully disjointed.

MJAPA said...

I was lucky enough to have dinner with Jon a few years back. He is my audio hero. :-) Very sweet guy! We talked about drum machines and this record. I am really looking forward to hearing it.