Once upon a time, just listening to Fiona Apple made me grit my teeth. This was during the Tidal era, when critics were falling all over themselves to toss palm fronds at Apple’s teenaged feet, and you couldn’t turn on MTV without seeing her cowering in her underwear. It was all a bit much for those of us who aren’t prone to flipping out for sulky adolescent angst, no matter how attractively it’s framed, and so it’s taken me some time to warm up to Fiona.
I still don’t care much for Tidal, and though I realize this puts me in the distinct minority, I don’t care. For my money, When the Pawn: is twice the album its predecessor was; it’s only here that Apple’s melodramatic, overly wordy tendencies begin to balance themselves out against a suitably inventive, tongue-in-cheek musical/melodic landscape.
The man largely responsible for these touches is Jon Brion, and his removal from the official version of Extraordinary Machine has resulted in a sort of good-natured battle between those who prefer the original, leaked Machine to the Mike Elizondo-produced iteration that Sony ultimately released. I’m not going to get into that. For one thing, though we did host the Brion-produced album here awhile back, I haven’t listened to it all; for another, it’s sort of beside the point, and a little unfair to Apple herself. What I will say is this: Once upon a time, Brion’s production work seemed wonderfully fresh and innovative. Play the quirky/baroque card often enough, though, and it gets old. His sensibilities are still uniquely suited to Apple’s talents â€” just listen to the sublime title track (download) for proof â€” but it’s definitely to her credit that she opted for a fresh approach.
So, how does Extraordinary Machine hold up on its own? Very well, thank you very much. Despite the change in producers, it really sounds like nothing so much as a logical extension of When the Pawn:, which will come as a disappointment to those who were expecting another quantum leap from Apple. She seems to have found her niche in penning highly literate heartbreak cabaret, and it works quite well, more often than not. She mines effectively the same territory as Aimee Mann, but to far greater effect â€” where Mann is either annoyingly dour or trying too hard to be clever most of the time, Apple effectively uses subtle lyrical and musical touches to keep things playfully bearable. The result is a set of songs that manages to be completely inward-focused without coming across as insular.
It occurs to me that most anyone who’s interested in buying this album has probably already done so, but fuck it â€” this has been sitting in my on-deck circle for weeks, and I’m reviewing it. If you’re still on the fence, grab “Get Him Back” (download) for additional listening pleasure.