Fiona Apple

Extraordinary Machine

(Sony; 2005)

By Peter Hepburn | 14 October 2005

An Open Letter to Sony/Epic Records,

I write to you today in solidarity. I know that there have been many attacking your decisions lately, questioning your judgment. I understand that you did not get to the position you are in today by picking up sub-par artists and releasing dud albums. The general public has come to expect much of you; after all, if not for you, how would we come to enjoy the quality products you have released over the last year from Ben Folds, Franz Ferdinand, and Modest Mouse?

There are still those among us who are not properly appreciative and do not see the wisdom in your choices. By now I am certain you are aware of the controversy that I reference: literally tens, if not hundreds, of angry, mournful youths have taken to the streets, powered by vegan delicacies and the dark sorrow hidden within their hearts, to demand the release of Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine. How little they understand.

These are the same people who routinely complain of CD prices being exorbitantly high, the same unruly hooligans who illegally downloaded the new Audioslave record. At this point you are simply giving them what they want. Anyone with a basic internet connection can download this album, no one is being forced to pay, and the very fact that the album is not receiving a proper release gives the kids a cause for righteous indignation, one of the basic elements of anyone’s teenage years. More simply, though, you are performing a public service.

To put it bluntly, no one should ever be forced to pay $17.99 for a copy of Extraordinary Machine. It is not a good album. Not only is there not a clear single (good excuse, by the way, but hopefully this will clear up your genuine, unselfish motivations), it’s hard to pick out even one truly great song. It is over-produced, poorly written, and melodramatic to a point that even I, someone who loved When the Pawn, finds atrocious.

The question is really what to do now. If I may advise, I would strongly recommend that someone quietly fire Jon Brion. He is like a one man Gilbert-and-Sullivan wrecking ball of sickeningly baroque instrumentation. If this was a compilation of show tunes, Mr. Brion would be appropriate, but in the case of a highly anticipated album from a soulful singer-songwriter with a fantastic voice, he is not simply the wrong choice and should never have even been an option. Leave him to mess with Aimee Mann’s career and indie movie soundtracks. While he does connect on the entirely overboard “Used to Love Him,” the rest of the album has a bipolar feel that does nothing but distract from Ms. Apple’s storytelling.

Second, you must find someone to focus Ms. Apple. She’s talented singer with a knack for deeply personal songs, but seems to have forgotten this, maybe someone should just politely say something? Most of the songs here feel half-formed, poorly written, dull, or some combination of those options. “Not about Love” is whiny, “Red, Red, Red” has a terrible chorus, and “Oh Sailor” is both whiny and has a terrible chorus. I don’t think “Get Him Back” is a joke, though perhaps you could confirm this for me, I’m not entirely convinced.

Still, it’s the second half that truly justifies your decision. Mr. Brion takes over at some point and the instrumentation goes from baroque to ludicrous, just as the songwriting nose-dives. “Window” is the worst song Ms. Apple has tried to release, “Waltz” feels like it was commissioned for a Disney movie (and a bad one at that), and, despite a fine delivery, the title track shares the same fate as “Waltz.” What became of the beauty and anger of When the Pawn?

People have criticized your choice not to release this album because it’s just too “out there” and has no discernible single. The sadly ironic “Please, Please, Please” laughs at Ms. Apple’s own failure while echoing the insults hurled against your fine record label, as she sings, “Give us something familiar / Something similar to what we know already.” I am not criticizing you here; just become something is new and different does not mean it is necessarily better, and Ms. Apple has proven this quite well. Extraordinary Machine is a step in a different direction, yes, but I can’t imagine anyone arguing it as being a good one. Clearly you have understood this, and I applaud you for your restraint in not releasing a record that, although it would almost certainly fare well commercially, is entirely sub-par.

Plus you could just release in it six months, swallow your pride about actually being right in turning it down in the first place, PR it as "the new Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" and just hope enough people don’t notice how mediocre it really is.