Dear Epic Records,
You are absolute geniuses. Amid whines of “There’s no hit single!” and “How are we going to promote this?” you somehow managed to launch the greatest marketing campaign in recent memory—and you didn’t even have to spend a dime. For months the Internet has been buzzing about Fiona Apple’s third album, Extraordinary Machine, which was reportedly complete in May of 2003, and a Free Fiona campaign, started by a group of fans in an effort to get the album released, has even received national press attention. “Brilliant! Keep it coming,” you must have thought. They’ve been sending apples to your new boss, former President of NBC Andrew Lack, as a symbol of their solidarity with Fiona. “Fruit for everyone! We don’t have to pay for lunch!” you probably said. Free Fiona has amassed almost 30,000 virtual signatures in less than six months. Okay, so not the kind of first-week numbers you like, but I have a suspicion Extraordinary Machine will scan at least three times that amount in its first seven days. Don’t think so? Prove me wrong.
I have to ask: At what point did you get cold feet? You should have known what you were getting into when crazy ol’ Fiona and her aural mistress/producer, Jon Brion, said they wanted to record in L.A.‘s Paramour Ballroom instead of a regular studio and demanded you keep your hands (and ears) off until they decided the project was done. You agreed, remember? Official press coverage began in the fall of ‘03, hinting that the album might actually see the light of day, but you pushed it back yet again, this time indefinitely, for lack of an obvious single. (Wondering: Was “Criminal” an “obvious single”?) Admit it, when Rolling Stone described the title track as “a Tin Pan Alley-esque blend of Tom Waits and Vaudeville,” you shit yourselves. You probably told Fiona, who could very well have quoted you in “Please Please Please,” one of Extraordinary Machine‘s many Doors-by-way-of-Kurt-Weill tunes: “Give us something familiar/Something similar/To what we know already/That will keep us steady…going nowhere.” But the album’s 11 tracks are now floating around the net and, get this, they’re even receiving old-fashioned radio airplay! Imagine that!
The Fiona fanatics are already swapping conspiracy theories and, after a little research, the connection between you and Seattle’s The End 107.7, the radio station that first leaked Extraordinary Machine, seemed conspicuous (Robert S. Wiesenthal, Executive Vice President of both your parent company, Sony Corporation of America, and Sony Broadband Entertainment, just so happens to be on the Board of Directors of Entercom Communications Corp., the fourth largest radio broadcaster in the country and home to 107.7). But after a quick conversation with Andrew Harms, the DJ who first played the tracks on air, it became clear that the conspiracy theorists are probably giving you too much credit. Though he wouldn’t reveal how he got his hands on the album, Harms insists there’s no connection between his source and Sony, Sony-BMG, or Entercom, and he expects to be served with a cease and desist any day now…but is still waiting. “They’re probably scratching their heads,” he says. “I just think this record should be heard.”
So what are you waiting for, Epic? You’ve been suspiciously quiet. The time to capitalize on all of this brouhaha is quickly passing you by. You’ve yet to acknowledge the existence of the guerilla campaign or the leak, which makes me think you’re not so genius after all. It’s no surprise that Lack, a man used to making TV programming decisions based on advertising dollars, wouldn’t know what to do with Extraordinary Machine. Or maybe it’s Fiona’s own doing. I realize she can be difficult, and who knows what horrors she’s put you through. I’ve had problems with Fiona in the past (I liked her debut but despised her persona and found When the Pawn… uneven at best), but there’s no getting around the fact that the now two-year-old Extraordinary Machine is, well, extraordinary. I agree: There is no single. I agree: It’s an arty, difficult album. Fiona’s songwriting is more complex than ever and her arrangements more eccentric, but her vocals are more assured, her lyrics more confident. No longer is she excessively self-deprecating or exhaustingly gloomy. Gone, for the most part, are the lumbering, brooding ballads that weighed down her previous records. In fact, this is easily her best album to date.
Where When the Pawn… played with jazz melodies and dissonance, the new album is more classically arranged, layered with Sgt. Pepper’s-esque strings, horns, bells, and whistles. It’s everything “Fast As You Can” promised and more. Though many of the songs are atypically structured, Extraordinary Machine is a truly gratifying listening experience: There are no singles because this is an album, a piece of art best taken, and likely intended, as a whole. The songs are clever, catchy, and surprising: “Waltz” is inspiring; the bouncy “Get Him Back” is vengeful but then, in a twist, pining and hopeful; “Not About Love” is defiant, a poetic, regret-filled account of the morning after secrets were spilled; and “Red Red Red,” the only discernable chorus of which occurs just once, sports head-turning lyrics like “I don’t understand about/Diamonds and why men buy them/What’s so impressive about a diamond/Except the mining?” This is no ordinary girl. You can hear her future in this one song alone, her sultry alto evoking Annie Lennox’s more seasoned, lived-in voice. Elsewhere, she delivers an anguished, scratchy growl (“Oh Well”) and an elated falsetto (“Get Him Back” and “Extraordinary Machine”) with equal gusto.
If there’s one thing Fiona should learn, it’s that fighting you won’t get her anywhere. Columbia, your sister label, eventually caved and released Sophie B. Hawkins’s sadly overlooked Timbre back in 1999, banjo and all, but the label spitefully let it tank (who said record execs are all about the bottom line? You like to prove points sometimes too!), and Hawkins soon split from the label. Fiona’s best bet is to buy back the masters from you and bring them to a label that understand artists and, more importantly, doesn’t underestimate the public. Or better yet, why not just give her the damn things? You’ve already cut your rhetorical losses; why own something just to keep it locked up in the attic so nobody else can have it? Especially when it’s a magnum opus like this.
Don’t be mad at me. I hate it when we fight. I’ve supported you over the years, and I even put up with J. Lo. I just want you to stop thinking about yourself for once. Consider it charity—then it will be tax deductible, and we all know how much you’ll love that.