Album Review: Fiona Apple, “Extraordinary Machine” (2005)

I never paid much attention to Fiona Apple in the past. I remembered hearing her single, Criminal on the radio, and writing her off as another one of the many female singer-songwriters of the time. It wasn’t until my friend, Danny, recommended her third album Extraordinary Machine to me that I ever cared to own one of her albums. Still weary, I listened to a few of the songs online, and suddenly, I was hooked. I hurried to the store and purchased her album so I could listen to it in full, and haven’t looked back since.

Apple’s album is served up like a three course meal- a few nice tracks to start off as appetizers, the best songs provided as the entree, and a couple of other songs that leave a sweet taste in your mouth for dessert.

The album, entirely written by Apple, is a pretty eclectic mix. Produced mostly by Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Nelly Furtado, P!nk), some of the songs have melodies worth listening to, and some leave all the glory to the lyrics. Most of the “appetizers” are the tracks that lack both. Oh Well is a piano heavy ballad, that nicely highlights Apple’s voice, though is a bit dry lyrically (about ending a bad relationship. The best line perhaps lies in the chorus- “What wasted unconditional love/On somebody/Who doesn’t believe in the stuff”).

Please Please Please is an up-tempo track, with a few witty lyrics (“I’m so tired of crying/You’d think I was a siren”), though again lacks much to make it stand out against some of the better songs on the album. The same could be said for Red Red Red, a song so boring that I’ve only listened all the way through once or twice.

Not About Love is a song that I tend to like on occasion. Apple’s voice is playful and pleasant as she sings about another twisted relationship (“Conversation once colored by esteem/Became dialogue as a diagram of a play for blood/Took a vacation, my palate got clean/Now I could taste your agenda/While you spit in your cud”). However, the rest of the lyrics leave a lot to be desired for. The musical direction of this song is the best part; the track starts off slowly, and builds in orchestration and speed as it goes along, and then slowly dwindles back to a subdued melody.

Main Course
One of the best songs on the album is the title track, Extraordinary Machine. The song starts off lightly with some marimbas resounding until Apple comes in to sing the first verse. Apple’s vocals are again highlighted nicely in this track. Apple has very distinct voice; though a bit raspy at times, her voice always has a great tone, and I enjoy listening to her. Anyway, this track is an upbeat, fun starter to the album, and I adore the words of the chorus (“If there was a better way to go then it would find me/I can’t help it, the road just rolls out behind me/Be kind to me, or treat me mean/I’ll make the most of it, I’m an extraordinary machine”).

Another stand out track is O’ Sailor. Apple proves to be quite a talented pianist; she plays excellently for several songs and this one is certainly no exception. The slow piano and drums work well and Apple sings with a nice amount of emotion as she evaluates an old flame. Lyrics like “Everything good I deem too good to be true/Everything else is just a bore/Everything I have to look forward to/Has a pretty painful and very imposing before” also prove that she’s an interesting songwriter, as well as a talented singer and pianist.

My favorite track, by far, is Tymps (The Sick In The Head Song). We finally see how the same producer who worked with Eminem and Dr. Dre has had a hand with Apple’s album; a throbbing, hand-clapping beat runs throughout the song. Again, Apple’s wry lyrics (“So why did I kiss him so hard/Late last Friday night/And keep on letting him change all my plans/I’m either so sick in the head/I need to be bled dry to quit/Or I just really used to love him/I sure hope that&#146s it”) will either cause you to laugh or nod your head in agreement, and the overall catchiness and fun of the track has made it a hit with most listeners of the album.

Apple returns to the piano ballads with Parting Gift. The song, simply composed with piano and vocals, is another one of the stand-outs; we get a glimpse of Apple’s raw vocals (which sound great) and the stripped down production sets an appropriately somber mood for the track. Things liven up a bit by the chorus, and Apple actually does a bit of pounding on the keys. She seems angry and regretful as she sings of an ex-lover (“I opened my eyes/While you were kissing me once, more than once/And you looked as sincere as a dog/Just as sincere as a dog does/When it’s the food on your lips with which it’s in love”), and the hauntingly beautiful song is one that I love.

Fiona Apple Oct 2012

The album closes with Waltz (Better Than Fine) a jaunty…waltz. Yes, the song is presented as a waltz, and despite however weird that may seem, it works well. Again, Apple’s piano-playing skills are put to work, and I love listening to her sing in this song as well. The song’s overall carefree mood is put together well with the melody and the second verse: “If you don’t have a date/Celebrate/Go out and sit on the lawn/And do nothing/’Cause it’s just what you must do/Nobody does it anymore”.

Get Him Back starts off with another pounding beat a bit similar to Tymps, but isn’t as catchy as its predecessor. This time around Apple plays the ex-girlfriend hoping to get revenge, and again, the lyrics shine (“Wait ’til I get him back/He won’t have a back to scratch/Yeah, keep turning that chin/And you will see my face/As I figure how to kill what I cannot catch”) as she sings of focusing on the one who burned her in the past and her eternal quest to pay him back. Another upbeat track is that of Better Version Of Me. The piano is crashing and loud, though fun, and Apple manages to gracefully rush her way through the fast paced song.

Window starts off quietly and unassuming, and then builds towards the chorus. The song has the most instruments in it (besides the orchestra in Better Than Fine)- including a sax, a trombone, a trumpet, and other horns. This is another of my favorites, as Apple again lets her inner rage out, and she sings of an experience with a boyfriend (or should I say, ex-boyfriend?); “So I had to break the window/It just had to be/Better that I break the window/Than him or her or me”.

After-Dinner Mint
Fiona Apple’s third album is a great mix of upbeat songs and piano ballads. However, things seem to go wrong when the production goes too far into new territory- Apple’s strength seems to be in ballads and mid-tempo tracks, not some of the other things she experiments on during the album. Fortunately, the good thing about experimentation is that now (hopefully) Apple will learn what works well for her and what doesn’t.

Rating: 200px-4_stars.svg

Track Listing
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
7. Window
8. Oh Well
9. Please Please Please
10. Red Red Red
11. Not About Love
12. Waltz (Better Than Fine)


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