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Arts and Entertainment

Fiona's "Machine" - An Extraordinary Followup

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After six years of silence, ditched efforts and leaked MP3s, the brooding songbird has returned with a formidable offering. Of course, diehard Fiona Apple fans have already sampled the early sessions of "Extraordinary Machine." Earlier this year, her dedicated fan base created a special website, dubbed "Free Fiona". Then, fans subsequently leaked 11 [unreleased] tracks across the internet. This was not done to thwart Apple, but rather to force her record label (Epic) to release the shelved material.

Epic was only partially to blame for the lethargic release. Apple, too, was reportedly displeased with the early cut of the album, which was produced by Jon Brion. The "Free Fiona" campaign propelled both Apple and her label to finish the album. She subsequently regrouped with producer Mike Elizondo to re-conceptualize 9 songs. Only the title cut and "Waltz (Better Than Fine)" remain from the Brion effort. Regardless of the particulars, we're happy "Extraordinary Machine" saw the light of day.

On the title track, Apple channels Billie Holiday (plus a dash of Björk) with surprising success. The lyrics offer us a peek into her state of mind:

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"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"

Even a staunch Apple-naysayer will be impressed by the playful phrasing and vocal acrobatics on this opening number.It's business as usual on "Get Him Back," which immediately sounds like it was plucked from her freshman effort, Tidal.

Much like the title track, "Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)" grabbed our ears immediately. The lyrics are poetic and sharp:

"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's it"

"Window" reveals another shard of Apple's razor-sharp musicianship. Somehow she can take incredibly dark topics and make them almost poppy, without losing the integrity of her message. We'd like to see "Window" as the next single... it sums up the writer's block that derailed the disc and the self-empowerment that eventually allowed "Extraordinary Machine" to materialize.

Fiona chose to bookend the album with "Waltz (Better Than Fine)." It's a fitting close. Judging from the collection of songs, Fiona has found her voice again. The material is predictably dark, but also more playful and complex than her earlier offerings. She's fallen down, dusted off the bruises and is all the better for it.

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Buying Advice:
Let's face it, this Venice Beach-based musician draws inspiration from the darker parts of life. But on "Extraordinary Machine," we see Apple coming into her own. There is no immediate radio hit here, not in the vein of Criminal... but that's exactly the point. "Machine" is a mature album, with solid material. Apple wanted to push the envelope, both lyrically and musically, and she succeeded. In short, it's a great ride, if you're willing to take it. Just schedule in some time to smell the flowers and pet the family dog afterwards. You'll need a pick-me-up.

Tried-and-true fans will want to grab the entire album. Casual listeners should sample the title track, "Window," "Get Him Back" and "Tymps" for starters. Check out Fiona's MySpace page to stream the entire album, without parting with your rent money.