Pop's former 'Brat Queen' impresses with lovely, mature 'Machine'

by Liz Ellison | 10/12/05 5:00am

Singer-songwriter Fiona Apple has been noticeably absent from the music scene for the past six years. During that time, she's done a little growing up, a little soul-searching and -- according to Apple -- a healthy amount of nothing at all. This unlikely recipe for success pays off in Apple's playfully self-assured third album, "Extraordinary Machine." Her first effort since 1999's "When the Pawn" is both a bleakly humorous examination of conscience and a wry celebration of the sort of doomed romances over which Apple spent most of her first two albums brooding.

This time around, though, the 28-year-old Apple is more concerned with playing fair; she carefully balances her bitterness over love gone sour with a deeply personal look into her own role in her relationships' decay. At the same time, she views her shortcomings with a matter-of-fact resolve to bounce back from disappointment and failure, both romantic and otherwise.

The title track highlights Apple's newfound, determined self-assurance, when she declares, "Be kind to me, or treat me mean / I'll make the most of it, I'm an extraordinary machine."

Elsewhere, smooth piano dominates both the upbeat, vaguely threatening "Get Him Back" and "Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)," a fun, funky nod to hip-hop.

Other gems include "Parting Gift," a haunting elegy for a defunct love affair in which Apple's lyrics are at their searing, insightful best. "I bet you could never tell / That I knew you didn't know me that well," she reflects, revealing a commitment to blame-sharing that permeates her most melancholic tracks.

On "Oh Well," Apple's low, sultry vocals take the spotlight as she again pours out regret for a failed romance; "What wasted unconditional love / On somebody / Who doesn't believe in the stuff," she sings. This older, wiser Apple has a clear view of herself and what she wants and deserves, as she warns in "Better Version of Me:" "I got a plan; a demand, and it just began."

Musically, Apple defies simple categorization, drawing on a range of influences from modern rock to R&B to jazz from the '30s and '40s. An unfinished version of "Extraordinary Machine," produced by Jon Brion, was leaked on the Internet earlier this year, and Apple soon remade the album with former Eminem collaborator Mike Elizondo. Elizondo's influence is most apparent on "Tymps" and other drum-driven tracks, but Apple's varied use of horns and a synthetic string ensemble keep the songs from seeming like cookie-cutter imitations of themselves.

The album's old-fashioned orchestral arrangements and Apple's rich, deep vocals suit the intimacy of her lyrics well. Amid a slew of young female pop sensations -- Ashlee Simpson and her ilk come to mind -- Apple's frank introspective style remains a bit of an anomaly. "Give us something familiar, something similar / To what we know already / That will keep us steady," she sings on "Please Please Please," perhaps partly speaking on behalf of a music community that she has accused of misunderstanding her earlier work.

Apple's path to success has been an uphill battle. "When the Pawn" earned her rave reviews and cemented fans' loyalty -- a remarkably long-standing loyalty, in light of her recent hiatus. But the album proved a disappointment in sales, and that misfortune could have made the pressure on Apple even more intense the third time around.

For her part, however, Apple seems content to shirk the spotlight. Her motivations are tied principally to her expectations of herself -- expectations she appears to be living up to musically, at least. "My method is uncertain / It's a mess, but it's working," she observes at one point. Despite her six-year silence, Apple lays claim to a cult following that led an aggressive campaign for the release of "Extraordinary Machine" when Sony, responding to the premature Internet leak, apparently shelved the album (The company and Apple both deny this rumor.).

The drama surrounding the production, reproduction and eventual release of "Extraordinary Machine" seems especially ironic given the album's specific strengths. Apple has just emerged from a potentially career-ending crisis, but the clear new vision she offers of herself as an artist, a lover and a human being belies the doubt and controversy surrounding her latest body of work. Her unspoiled self-confidence contributes much to her overall appeal as an artist; she is accessible and mysterious, bold and vulnerable.

Perhaps most important thematically to "Extraordinary Machine" is Apple's willingness to accept -- and sometimes laugh at -- her own flaws. In doing so, she creates in "Extraordinary Machine" a gentle precaution against taking life too seriously even as she gives vent to her most poignant joys and sorrows. "Waltz (Better Than Fine)," the smart but low-key final track, is best representative of the guarded optimism and laidback life philosophy that lie at the core of "Extraordinary Machine." Indeed, Apple's third effort turns out quite simply to be her most honest, most fun and most compelling yet.

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