Heres to the Machine
Now that the dust has settled from the Free Fiona Internet campaign and weve had a chance to hear the evidence speak for itself in the form of both the official Sony release of Apples Extraordinary Machine and also the Web-leaked Jon Brion version maybe its time to consider a little sympathy for the devil. Maybe, in this case at least, the evil, dream-crushing, soulless record industry had the artists best interests in mind.
The impatience of major record labels is well documented. With the long-term vision of lemmings and an apparently Amish grasp of the Internet, they flounder in a haze of inefficiency, compensating for their vast losses on ill-chosen and ill-promoted new acts by leaning on their few commercially lucrative artists to churn out product, almost regardless of content, just to balance the books.
So get this: When Apple and longtime producer Jon Brion presented Extraordinary Machine to their Sony Records masters in 2003, the unimpressed corporate suits actually shelved the project. Even though Sony was fully aware that Apple whod had a triple-platinum debut in 1996s Tidal and a platinum-plus seller with 99s When the Pawn . . . could belch on disc and still shift units, it held back for the greater good of both label and artist. Supposedly, Apple herself had reservations about the album and intended to rework it with Brion, only Sony, which had already sunk $800,000 into the recordings, imposed restrictions on the process, at which she initially balked. Thus the long delay.
As murmurs spread about Apples ominous silence, a Free Fiona Internet campaign petitioned Sony to release the Brion recordings, which were later leaked onto the Web. Though the fans efforts moved Apple, shed by then already embarked upon retooling Extraordinary Machine with hip-hopper Mike Elizondo (producer of 50 Cent and Eminem, bassist on When the Pawn . . .) and electronica experimentalist Brian Kehew. The revamped album was released in October and, partly thanks to all the fuss, attained Apples highest chart position to date.
With the initial draft of Extraordinary Machine, Apple and Brion indulged themselves inside a cocoon reminiscent of Brions cozy improvisational nights at L.A.s Largo. Their previous work masterfully straddled art and pop, Apple spinning emotional strands sufficiently resilient to survive her eccentric structures and Brions carnivalesque embroidery. But Brions movie-soundtrack sensibilities and love of arcane instrumentation rendered Extraordinary Machines already semi-oblique utterances, loaded with archaic language and increasingly cloudy metaphors, a claustrophobic, overorchestrated in-joke.
Now that the official version of Extraordinary Machine has been out nearly two months, its still easy to sympathize with the labels uneasiness. Even after Elizondos tastefully minimalist reworkings (only two of Brions treatments appear on the released version), the record lacks the suicidal seduction of Apples previous albums; its a stylistically scattered collection that sometimes sounds like rescues from the cutting-room floor. Her self-consciously quirky lyric tricks and jazz-lite phrasing remain, but theyre more technically musical this time, more intellectual than visceral.
Although essentially a breakup record, Extraordinary Machine doesnt transmit the sensory train wreck that made Tidal and When the Pawn . . . recorded when Apple was just 18 and 22 addictions for dorm-room misfits, suburban moms and secretly sensitive guys alike. Apples signature mélange of multiple, often contradictory feelings within single lines has made way for a more ordered, song-by-song self-therapy, which, alongside the albums tortured genesis and duo of producers, creates an uncomfortably undulating impression. Shes gone away, grown up and shed much of her nail-gnawing, shuddering-puppy allure, yet somehow sounds less worldly and less otherworldly than ever. Nevertheless, in the stained-velveteen bemusement of O Sailor and the disrobed, bottom-feeding regret of Oh Well, there are windows into the emotional labyrinth that we all traverse, and to which Apples earlier work lent shape and name.
Record labels are vilified for choking the creative process with haste, yet when they do the opposite, they get reamed for that, too. The original Extraordinary Machine, though fireside quaint, was made by Apple and Brion primarily for Apple and Brion, and Sony was justified in not tossing so personal a document to the marketplace wolves. Does a gaggle of überfans have the right to hear these recordings when seemingly even their creator was unhappy with them? Yes, our hard-earned dollars feed (or in Apples case, underfeed) our icons, but were not necessarily entitled to become audio paparazzi, long-lensing into their every musical doodle.
Now whos unfairly pressuring artists?
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