To say that the released version of Extraordinary Machine is a marked improvement over the bootlegged version is not to say that it sounds more complete -- after all, the booted Jon Brion productions sounded finished, as evidenced by the two cuts that were retained; the intricate chamber pop of the opening title track and the closing "Waltz ...Read MoreTo say that the released version of Extraordinary Machine is a marked improvement over the bootlegged version is not to say that it sounds more complete -- after all, the booted Jon Brion productions sounded finished, as evidenced by the two cuts that were retained; the intricate chamber pop of the opening title track and the closing "Waltz (Better Than Fine)" are the only time Brion's productions not only suited, but enhanced Fiona Apple's songs -- but they are both more accessible, and more fully realized, letting Apple's songs breathe in a way they didn't on the original sessions. While Brion's productions were interesting, they stretched his carnivalesque aesthetic to the limit, ultimately obscuring Apple's songs, which were already fussier, artier, and more oblique than her previous work. When matched to Brion's elaborately detailed productions, her music became an impenetrable Wall of Sound, but Mike Elizondo's productions open these songs up, making it easier to hear Apple's songs while retaining most of her eccentricities. Now, Extraordinary Machine sounds like a brighter, streamlined version of When the Pawn, lacking the idiosyncratic arrangement and instrumentation of that record, yet retaining the artiness of the songs themselves. Like her second record, this album is not immediate; it takes time for the songs to sink in, to let the melodies unfold, and decode her laborious words (she still has the unfortunate tendency to overwrite: "A voice once stentorian is now again/Meek and muffled"). Unlike the Brion-produced sessions, peeling away the layers on Extraordinary Machine is not hard work, since it not only has a welcoming veneer, but there are plenty of things that capture the imagination upon first listen -- the pulsating piano on "Get Him Back," the moodiness of "O' Sailor," the coiled bluesy "Better Version of Me," the quiet intensity of the breakup saga "Window," the insistent chorus on "Please Please Please" -- which gives listeners a reason to return and invest time in the album. And once they do go back for repeated listens, Extraordinary Machine becomes as rewarding, if not quite as distinctive, as When the Pawn. Nevertheless, this is neither a return to the sultry, searching balladeering of Tidal, nor a record that will bring her closer to tasteful, classy Norah Jones territory, thereby making her a more commercial artist again. Extraordinary Machine may be more accessible, but it remains an art-pop album in its attitude, intent, and presentation -- it's just that the presentation is cleaner, making her attitude appealing and her intent easier to ascertain, and that's what makes this final, finished Extraordinary Machine something pretty close to extraordinary. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, RoviRead Less
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