The Transfiguration of Fiona into the most unlikely member of the hallowed hall of Rock 'n' Roll Saints was on the way. Her first Miracle: decrying awards shows and her soft-porn video for the hideous "Criminal" in front of millions. Her second: giving her second album a 90-word title, a move that may as well have stickered it with the old five-word Nailbomb label Proud to Commit Commercial Suicide, the predictable difficult-second-album sales clocking in at not even a third of her first's. The third Miracle, for which she was to be bestowed a canonized place in pop-cultural Forever, was for Apple to be some one-woman Wilco: making an album deemed "unreleasable" by dudes in suits, only for the Power of the People to get her misunderstood magnum opus on shelves via the Internet's file-sharing wires.
Only problem being that Apple wasn't actually in on this idealist idea. It was she, in fact, who bailed on the first version of Extraordinary Machine made with Jon Brion, an orchestra, and Abbey Road as her allies to rerecord it all with longtime Dr.Dre associate Mike Elizondo. When that plan was questioned by Sony suits who'd footed the bill for the first go-around, it was actually Apple who shut everything down. If the movement that sought to "save" her was called Free Fiona, the empowered People were protesting to have Apple released from a self-made prison. The petition-signers eventually had their influence, albeit more indirectly: not getting the widely-bootlegged Brion version officially released, but, rather, motivating Apple to finally finish her third longplayer.
With such a backstory, this final, finished, officially-released Extraordinary
Machine is an anticlimax. Rather than representing the Emancipation of Fi-Fi,
this disc serves as sad evidence of musical meekness, be it on the part of artist,
label, or both. Lacking both the musical and counter-cultural thrill of the Brion
recordings, this album turns away from a certain artistic "rawness" in the original
recordings, razing away counter-melodies and acoustic decay for a well-polished
delivery that presents the photogenic songstress in a more "flattering" light;
pushing her voice forth, and receding the accompanying arrangements into an indistinct
finish of drum-loops, keyboards, and throbbing bass. Contrasting against this
are three songs: two survivors of the Brion productions, and one, "Parting Gift," where
Elizondo and Co. provide no musical backing for Apple's original piano/vocal
performance, said performance rendering melodrama writ large in quiet/loud contrast
and slyly syncopated syllables, with her singing of "shoulda put 'em," twice
over, showing Apple at her best. This playful phrasing is shown beautifully,
on the album's amazing title-track opener, where the piano man pirouettes through
playful phonetic phrases "You deem me due to clean my view and be at peace
and lay/ I mean to prove I mean to move in my own way, and say/ I've been getting
along for long before you came into the play" whilst Brion, in his
orchestral element, matches this with deliberately-delightful pizzicato strings,
marimba, woodwinds, and a banged gong.
As it stands, it stands as the album's
towering achievement, an album opener that, in another, better world, would be
a statement of intent upon whose promise the resulting record would deliver.
But, this isn't the case. And this is not to be, Fiona's place as a countercultural
Saint being now just so much Apple pie-in-the-sky.