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Music CD Spotlight 

Ghost of the 'machine'

Those who grew attached to the internet-bootleg version of Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine probably gnashed their teeth the first time they heard the new, officially sanctioned Machine.

It's not that the differences are so radical. In fact, Apple sings several of the songs almost exactly the same way she did on the original tracks, right down to the subtlest inflections and fadeout falsettos. And producer Mike Elizondo generally adheres to the basic blueprint established by Jon Brion, who produced the album's first incarnation (two of Brion's tracks made it to the official Machine). It's just that the details of Brion's production - the carnival swirls, the lightfooted strings - became inextricable from these songs after a few listens, and they continually bump up in your head against Elizondo's sparer architecture.

As a result, many rabid Apple scruffs, the same people who protested what they perceived as corporate unwillingness to release the Brion-produced Machine (Apple says she, not label reps, decided that the tracks needed to be re-recorded), are grumbling that the remakes represent some form of commercial compromise. All in all, however, the new Machine is a solid improvement over what was already a highly impressive bootleg.

Extraordinary Machine
Fiona Apple
(Epic Records)

Elizondo can't match Brion's genius for orchestration, and wisely doesn't try. He focuses on Apple's voice and piano, and builds taut grooves and discreet loops to support her. The weakest tracks on the bootleg all feel stripped down and clear-headed in their do-over versions. On Brion's Machine, "Used To Love Him" sounded like the cacophonous result of two marching bands colliding in the middle of a football field. Here, the tune, retitled "Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)," benefits from a snappy programmed beat and a new sense of clarity in Apple's delivery.

The one serious casualty of Elizondo's production is "Not About Love," which loses Brion's ironic Hollywood string arrangement and gains an awkwardly tacked-on drum part. It feels like a rough mix with the best stuff left out.

Ultimately, Machine will occupy the same odd position held by Bob Dylan's 1975 masterwork, Blood On The Tracks, another record that leaked to the public in one form and was subsequently altered by its auteur before hitting the stores. Diehards continue to debate which version of Dylan's album was preferable, and they'll likely do the same with Apple's effort. But when the critical dust clears, her album - like Dylan's - should be recognized as a classic.

- Gilbert Garcia

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October 20, 2021

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