Extraordinary Machine. Fiona Apple
2005, Epic. Producer: Mike Elizondo, Brian Kehew, Jon Brion
Purchased: ca. 2008.
IN A NUTSHELL – Jazzy pop songs with strong vocals, nice piano and creative instrumentation; introspective, wordy lyrics express a wide range of emotions in catchy yet unexpected melodies. She’s a performer reminiscent of Randy Newman, but with lyrics directed at herself, not society. It’s not an album I would’ve predicted to appear on this list 10 or 15 years ago.
A Series of Open Letters to My Younger Selves
To: Me (1976)
Boy, this Bicentennial stuff is pretty neat, isn’t it? I have to say, for a nine-year-old, you did a good job of Christmas shopping. That set of coasters stored in the shape of a stylish, plastic Liberty Bell was GREATLY appreciated by Mom, just so you know.
So, I’m writing to discuss music with you a little bit. I know you’re a fan of WLBR, and “Sir Duke” and “Philadelphia Freedom.” And the fact that your favorite song is “Strawberry Fields Forever,” well – it brings a tear to my eye! But remember, just recently, when you were at Dr. Eisenhauer’s office? The dentist, near the Post Office? And remember how you were SHOCKED when Dr. Eisenhauer asked the receptionist to turn the radio to a different station because he “can’t stand that Barry Manilow!”?!?!
You must recall how – stunned at this revelation – you told your mom and sisters all about it, asking them, “How can anyone hate Barry Manilow? He is so good!!” They seemed to agree, especially Liz.
And it’s true he will have had lots of hit records and an extremely successful career in pop music. But many people find him sappy and insincere – although most everyone recognizes his immense musical talent. Strange to hear, I know, but musical talent won’t necessarily equal popularity2. And lots of musicians are very talented but never achieve success like Barry. It’s weird.
Anyway, someday you’ll change the station when he comes on, too! It’s true. But the point is this – there’s music out there for everyone – and the stuff you like now might not be what you like later on.
A couple things from the future: enjoy Happy Days while you can, ‘cause it’s about to get pretty ridiculous.
Also, Good News: your favorite team, The New Orleans Saints, WILL win a Super Bowl some day! Bad News: Not until you’re 42. (Secondary Good News: you’ll live at least until you’re 42!)
To: Me (1982)
I’m here from the future to tell you that it’s not weird for you to be so obsessed with Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders.
It’s understandable for you to spend (waste) your hours watching bullshit videos from The Producers and Phil Collins and Juice Newton just so you can MAYBE catch a glimpse of “Talk of the Town” or “Message of Love” or – the Holy Grail – “Tattooed Love Boys.” Chrissie Hynde is worth those hours spent.
I know your parents have no words to describe what you’re feeling, and that they’ve spent their lives pretending they’ve never felt it, and that they hoped to at least get you and your sisters out of the house before you three ever acknowledged its existence, (don’t worry I won’t mention its name) but it’s totally normal. It’s not a bad thing! It’s not a weird thing!
Your friends can talk all they want about Cheryl Tiegs or Heather Thomas or Christie Brinkley – they’re just pretty faces (and etc.; let’s be honest, it’s not just the face.) But Chrissie is a talented MUSICIAN, and believe it or not, you’ll come to realize that her appeal (let’s call it) is as much about her musical abilities – that is, who she is as a person – as it is about her looks. She fronts a KICK-ASS rock band, plays guitar and sings the songs really cool, and that just heightens the whole “appealing” thing.
And if Chrissie played shitty music, you wouldn’t be so obsessed.4Keep judging musicians – both men and women – by the music they play, not by their looks, okay?
Okay, okay, I’ll stop. I agree – it’s too weird to discuss this with you. But listen, on a somewhat related note: if that really pretty girl, J., whom you’ve liked since seventh grade, upon returning to the high school late at night after performing in a parade together with the marching band, asks you if you want to “go for a walk around the lockers,” an area of the school which is – of course – darkened, because it’s 10:30 at night (which means – by the way – that you have a good half hour to spend on such a stroll, since your mom isn’t going to pick you up til about 11) … well, when you DO go for this walk, at least try to hold her hand, or something!! YOU’LL NEVER GET A CLEARER HINT FROM A GIRL, YOU IDIOT!!5 If you just go for a fast lap around the lockers with her, and blather on about David Letterman and Steve Martin, and how your band uniform makes you sweat and itch, you’ll NEVER get another chance to possibly kiss her!! EVER! 6 And this fact WILL haunt you for years. I’m not kidding. Years.
I know there’s been talk about starting a family, and I know that scares the shit out of you. As it should. So, listen, others will give you all types of advice about the pros and cons of fatherhood, what changes to expect, what it all means, blah blah blah. But I’m gonna tell you something nobody else seems to consider – something I know you’ll want to hear: How Will Fatherhood Affect Your Musical Life?
1) Most of the albums you buy in the next ten years will be by Raffi, The Wiggles, and Laurie Berkner. You’ll be bummed out not only by how persistently catchy the songs are, but also by how easily you’ll come to recognize them AND by how long you’ll remember them – word for word!!!7 Everyone will tell you you’ll come to hate these songs.
But the horrible truth that no one else will tell you is this: you’ll find many of the songs enjoyable. See, what’s fucked up about parenthood is this: even though the songs, in a vacuum, are really horrible, just as you think, you won’t be experiencing them in a vacuum. You’ll be experiencing them through your children. So while “Having Fun at the Beach,” or “I’m Gonna Catch You” are – in and of themselves – the aural equivalents of chugging a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s Syrup8, when you see your kids bopping their heads to the songs, or belting out the lyrics along with the record, or working up a sweat in front of the TV set while they dance along to the videos for twenty or thirty minutes, it will become IMPOSSIBLE to separate the songs from the good feelings of seeing your kids really, really happy. It’s just how it is. Your kids will have an affect on your music appreciation – and not just with Kiddie Songs.9
2) The albums you buy for yourself for the next … fifteen or so years will sometimes go unlistened-to for weeks, or MONTHS!! You’ll be so excited to get that CD in the mail10 and then continue to find it lying around the house, unopened, for the next several weeks. You’ll start to listen, but find yourself tied up with soccer practices and dance practices and Little League board meetings, and PTO meetings, and homework, not to mention home ownership, and work (fucking science), and family time, and spending time wrestling/playing/dancing/arguing with your kids, and the next thing you know there will be another CD you HAVE TO BUY, but you still haven’t really heard that last one. They’ll start to stack up. And your ridiculous, it-seemed-smart-at-the-time plan to borrow them from the library will fail miserably, as well.
3) As they get older, you won’t like most of the music your kids like. But they’ll continue to like a lot of the music you like, so you’ll feel a little bit successful as a cultural guide for the youth.
But watch out: just as it happened when they were toddlers, you’ll find yourself experiencing music through your kids, so a catchy song that you otherwise would hate will become a Song the Makes You Think of Your Daughter or Son, and next thing you know you’ll be buying it on itunes.11 Don’t say I didn’t warn you that someday you may find yourself wiping a (manly) tear from your eye
Okay, that’s about all I have time to tell you. But here’s a bit of advice: that condo in SF with no parking that seems too expensive, at $165,000? It is NOT too expensive. In another 3 years it will be worth 10 times that. I shit you not.
Carry on, younger selves!! Somehow you’ll make it to November, 2015, without all this sage advice I just gave you.
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So I began putting together this list of favorite albums mainly in opposition to all the “best of” lists that music magazines and music critics are so fond of publishing. I always think “best” is a strange attribution for art, and I tend to believe that any critics who believe they can identify “the best” of anything are nothing more than bullshit artists. I tend to dismiss much criticism. But there are times when I’ll hear a critic’s take on something and find myself interested. (I’m sure it happens far more often than I’d like to admit!)
Fiona Apple is an artist who, by the mid 2000s, I hadn’t thought much about in years. I knew her by her breakthrough 90s hit, “Criminal,” a pretty cool, bluesy pop song that didn’t make much of a lasting impression with me – other than the fact that the video was very controversial, as it featured a scantily-clad
– not to mention unhealthily skinny – Apple, looking regretful or intimidated, while singing and sprawling and disrobing amongst, or clinging to, random unconscious young bodies in dimly-lit rooms. It all seemed to suggest a teenage booze and drugs party gone horribly wrong – the type of party that gets ripped from the headlines to be fictionalized on an episode of Law and Order: SVU. I heard her name a lot, but she seemed to me to have gotten lots of press from basically one song, and I tended to dismiss her as one more artist in a long line of critic-adored 90s musicians onto whose bandwagon I could not muster the enthusiasm to hop.
But sometime around 2006, I saw a performance of hers that caught – and firmly held – my attention. She appeared on TV with one of my favorite performers, Elvis Costello, singing one of my favorite songs of his, “I Want You.”
My first thought when I saw she was performing was, “Where’d they dig her up? Who’s coming out next, Duncan Sheik?” But her obvious talent, the weight of her performance, the commitment to the song … it all worked together to make me think, “There’s more to this singer than I previously thought.”
Also around that time I heard a review of Extraordinary Machine on NPR’s Fresh Air that made me think I would like it.12 I was the father of a young daughter, thinking a lot about the great wilderness of future that lay ahead for any child – but especially a girl – and the reviewer’s description of the album made me think I could gain some insight from Apple’s perspective on life on this particular album.
The program also played a bit of the album’s title track, “Extraordinary Machine,” and that was enough to send me to iTunes to download the record.
The orchestral arrangement of the song, coupled with a slyly placed chime, drew me into the song immediately. I also really like Apple’s lyrics, and how the long run of words that end each verse (i.e. “I still only travel by foot and by foot it’s s slow climb/but I’m good at being uncomfortable so I can’t stop changing all the time”) seem to not quite fit into the structure of the song, but actually are packaged in such a way that they do, just right – like a week’s worth of belongings packed into an expert hiker’s small rucksack. Also, the message of the song, particularly as expressed in the chorus, (“Be kind to me/Or treat me mean/I’ll make the most of it/I’m an extraordinary machine”) is a message of strength and resilience, with a touch of grace-under-pressure and a belief in one’s self. These are traits that parents wish for all their kids, but at the time I first heard them, as the father of a young daughter, the song pretty directly expressed many of the hopes I have for her. It’s become one of my favorite songs, not just because of the influence fatherhood has had on my musical tastes13 but also because of this:
Something you should know about me, that perhaps I’ve kept secret through the first 27 albums I’ve reviewed, is this: I’m a sucker for the oboe. It gets me every time. Throw an oboe into a song, and I’m probably gonna listen more than once.
Fiona Apple is a piano player, and the next song on the album, “Get Him Back,” is a bouncy, piano-driven number.
It’s a straight-ahead rock number, but what lifts it to another level are Apple’s vocals. Her phrasing is jazzy and cool, and the melody itself, which takes some unexpected turns. For example, the “…kill what I cannot catch” line always seems to surprise me by NOT rising in pitch in a way I think it should – and that makes it sound great! Apple’s lyrics sometimes tend toward the “you-did-me-wrong,-you-bastard!” variety, but on “Get Him Back,” she’s blaming herself for basing her judgment of a new suitor on the last two jerks she dated.
In the NPR review, Ken Tucker compares Apple to Randy Newman, and I think this is an apt comparison. Both are piano-playing songwriters who keep a thesaurus in one pocket and vial of potent irony in the other. However Newman tends to focus his songs outwardly, on society, and takes on different personae when he sings in the first person. But Apple’s focus sounds deeply personal. One never gets the feeling that her lyrics are meant to speak for anyone other than herself.
The most direct of these on Extraordinary Machine may be “Parting Gift,” a spare song featuring simply Apple’s piano and voice that was recorded – according to Brian Kehew, the track’s producer – in one take.
Despite the slow pace and emotive singing, the lyrics are actually quite humorous, a bit mean, but yet reflective. Apple has a reputation for being “a tragic victim waif,” which she herself has complained about. But lyrics like those in “Parting Gift” demonstrate she’s much more complex than whatever image has been put forward for her. She’s angry and derisive, yet funny and wistful and taking full responsibility for whatever’s happened. Plus I like how – once again – she packs many words into a small space (“but we went on wholehearted, it said stop”) and makes it sound unhurried and natural.
As I’ve stated and restated, I’m more of a guitar and drums guy, with lyrics taking a backseat in my music appreciation. But sometimes lyricists stand out to a degree that really strikes me, and Apple’s lyrics do so on this album.
For example, I love the rhymes on the track “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song).”
Apple constructs rhymes like this in many songs, sounding, to me, like the way Chuck D put words together, or Bob Dylan. The rhymes occur in unexpected places, but fit the flow of the song. “Tymps” also has a nice tick-tock pace and great background instrumentation. And once again, the lyrical content shows Apple to be less angry than frustrated. I think the “angry” label was something sort of thrust onto Apple (and many 90s women acts) as a way to categorize her, but it doesn’t really fit. Or often – as with “Tymps,”she sounds angry at herself.
Which isn’t to imply there’s anything wrong with being angry in song! The song “Oh Well“ shows a contemplative, smoldering side of anger, while one of my favorites on the record, “Window,” is more of a physical expression of it.
It’s one of the more straight-ahead rockers on the record, and the music is well played and cool, but the star of “Window” is Apple’s voice, once again jazzy and soulful, with excellent phrasing. She stretches single syllables into multiples expertly, and – as always – sings with a distinct point of view, which enhances the connection with the listener.
Her voice is the star on all of the songs, really. One of my favorite vocal performances on the record is the song “Not About Love,” shown here with a funny video featuring Zach Galifiniakis.
It’s a multi-part piece, with lyrics that are accusatory, reflective, and funny (“I miss that stupid ape”) all in a brief 4 minutes. The song starts with a rhythmic piano and syncopated drums, and Apple’s husky voice comes in with a rather awkward melody, almost a yodel, that works because of her control. After a couple bouncy verses, there’s a slow dirge part, followed by a frantic piano playing part At about 2:52, she sings a verse that’s almost scat-singing, an impressive vocal performance. My wife makes a Swedish dish sometimes, called “pitta-panna”14 in which all the leftovers are thrown into the pan and cooked together, with a fried egg thrown on top of everything. It’s delicious. With it’s diverse sections, “Not About Love” is the pitta-panna on the album, and that scat part is the yummy fried egg.
“Better Version of Me” is another bright, jazzy pop song. Like the other songs I’ve discussed, it has great, wordy lyrics and a real “Broadway” feel to it. (Which, if you’ve read other album write-ups of mine, you know is a compliment coming from me.) “O’Sailor” is a track that sounds unlike most any other pop song you’ll hear.
It’s got a nautical feel to it, and that video is almost seasickness-inducing. It’s another strong melody, with unusual instrumentation, and again sounds like it would be at home on a Broadway cast recording.
The album closes with “Waltz (Better Than Fine)” an uplifting, positive way to end an album chock full with emotion and personal expression.
It’s another theatrical production, with full orchestra – and one imagines our protagonist and her love interest dancing across the stage as she sings – but brief, with lyrics letting the listener know that even though there’ve been some troubles along the way, she’s gotten through them and is doing Better Than Fine. I’ve read that Apple’s biggest pet peeve is having people around her worry about her, and this song, together with the opening track, are her means to allay others’ concerns. They’re great bookends to a really cool album.
When I was nine, and enjoying Barry Manilow, I never would’ve thought I’d ever like an album like this. But then again, she is a talented songwriter and pianist, just like Barry.
When I was fifteen, and obsessed with MTV, guitar rock, and Chrissie Hynde, I never would’ve thought I’d ever like an album like this. But then again, she is an attractive woman whose looks are deeply enhanced, in my estimation, by musical talent.
When I was thirty, and buying albums I’d barely ever hear, I never would’ve thought I’d ever like an album like this. But then again, when you have a little daughter and you hear songs like “Extraordinary Machine” or “Window,” or “Not About Love,” it’s hard not to think about the strength and talent you hope she’ll one day possess.
Musical taste is weird. It’s fluid and difficult to predict. So I say keep listening, and try not to totally reject anything. You never know who you’ll be one day, or what that person would like to hear.
Get Him Back
Better Version of Me
Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)
Please, Please, Please
Red Red Red
Not About Love
Waltz (Better Than Fine)