I fell for it. Well, sort of. It turns out that all the conspiracy theories and rumors surrounding Fiona Apple's long-delayed third album, Extraordinary Machine, were only half-truths. Epic Records did not shelve the album. But they did want something more commercially viable. Apple did not quit the biz and go into seclusion following a thumbs-down from her record label. She did, however, become paralyzed under all the pressure, which caused the famously volatile singer to step away from her album rather than push for its release. Recent press interviews suggest that Apple was afraid that what was going to happen was what her fans thought was already happening. Epic may not have "officially" shelved the album, but they certainly didn't make things easy for fickle Fiona, who requested money to re-record the album but was only given enough to record one track at a time. She was, in effect, being held hostage, and no one was saying a word.
It figures that Apple would finally record an album I could get behind 100% and then decide she's unhappy with it. I even went so far as to review the album via an angry open letter to Epic Records. "I'm a frightened, fickle person," Apple sings on "Better Version Of Me"—it's an unfortunate truth, but you can't hate her for it, and I don't. "My method is uncertain," she continues a few songs later, "It's a mess but it's working." And, thankfully, the songs are so damn good it doesn't really matter how or when the album sees the light of day. Still, the ghosts of Jon Brion's original masterpiece haunt—or, more accurately, taunt—the new Extraordinary Machine. It's fitting that the two songs left in tact from the original sessions—the title song and "Waltz (Better Than Fine")—bookend the other 10 songs since his influence and essence can be felt throughout (the original album was as much Brion's baby as it was Apple's), but for every song that's been improved ("O' Sailor" is cleaner, tighter, and yet more fleshed out at the same time) there's one that's been unnecessarily tooled with (with strings traded for guitars and bass, "Not About Love" is practically neutered, sonically and emotionally).
The re-recorded Extraordinary Machine highlights another music industry pseudo-phenomenon, the casting of producers in foreign genres. While Brion was busy making inroads into hip-hop (co-producing the bulk of Kanye West's Late Registration), Apple commissioned Dr. Dre associate Mike Elizondo to reshape her album. The new versions aren't as spacious or grand (or, some might say, ostentatious), but the gorgeous ballad "Parting Gift," the sole new track here, proves the panty-clad little girl of "Criminal" is finally all grown up. "Tymps (The Sick In The Head Song)," formerly known as "Used To Love Him," is less Tin Pan Alley-esque and its certainly more accessible, but its drum programming and slick production values restrict what was once free and spirited. An even bigger change, however, is "Red Red Red," on which Apple compares her love to the labors and fruits of diamond mining. This slower, more reflective take evokes Annie Lennox's brand of demure torch-song balladry even more than the original. It's an altogether different interpretation, the kind that makes both versions absolutely essential. Perhaps, one day, when Extraordinary Machine is declared a true classic, Apple will release a deluxe edition including both equally extraordinary versions of the album.