***2/9/11 Update: Please note that Google, being the terrible people that they are, took down The Unheard over on Blogger, so the link in this blog to download the John Brion version is no longer accessible. Sorry for being a big tease, but at least I told you in advance. Also, be sure to check out the new Unheard site, over at http://www.theunheardmusic.org/ Seriously, do that. The guy that runs it is super, duper awesome.***
So, about six years too late, I come across the original version of Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine over on The Unheard Music. (Side note: If you haven’t checked out that site yet, do it now. It’s full of musical gems from rare tracks to bootlegs to b-sides, and all of them are incredible.) It’s like listening to an entirely different album, yet at the same time, listening to the same album for the first time. Originally produced by Jon Brion, the original is a raw, emotional album with frenzied strings, ominous tones…it’s basically the evil twin of the pair compared to Mike Elizondo’s final release, an overproduced, radio friendly album. The only exception to this is “Please, Please, Please” and I think that’s only because this album may or may not have been mastered. The syncopation is off and it drives me a little bit insane. OCD FTL!
I’m not saying that the final was a bad album…in fact, I loved the shit out of that album until yesterday. When the final release came out to the masses, I did think it a bit odd, the amount of production, but I figured that it was just Apple growing up and becoming a little more polished. It was disappointing in the way that it’s not the Fiona Apple that I had come to love since the Tidal days, but it was a natural progression. Here, I come to find, it’s a sham.
It’s been disputed who actually declined the first recording. At first, Epic was blamed. It was said that they slated the album because there was no definitive “hit”. This prompted fans to launch the Free Fiona campaign in front of Sony studios. Later, though, and according to Elizondo, it was Apple’s choice to re-do the record, stating that she had written and recorded the songs, but didn’t have time to live with them and conceding that she didn’t really know what she wanted the album to be during the initial recordings. If I was part of that Free Fiona movement, I’d be pretty pissed off.
Despite the sloppiness of the situation, Brion and Apple remained friends, even performing together mere days before the final release. Surprising as that is, it seems like everyone involved settled amicably. Apple and Brion remain friends, Elizondo gets his 15 minutes, despite technically releasing an already released album (leaks of Brion’s original had been available on P2P sites for months at that point), and Apple still gets a new album. Win win for all.
As it is, Extraordinary Machine was a well received album by just about everyone. Critics and fans alike all found something to love. What I find interesting though, is that this is such a drastic change of what this album could have been. While the title track and “Waltz (Better Than Fine)” remain the same, that’s where the similarities end. I think Brion’s version represents Apple in the way that fans expect. Brion’s sinister and ominous strings, Apple’s dark and sultry voice, combined with her patented piano make this a quintessential Apple album, while Elizondo’s enables her to bring her music to the masses.
I think the loss of a lot of the string arrangements on the final release is really a shame. They added such a sense of fullness to an otherwise fairly sparse album. Instead of keeping the simple strings, Elizondo fills the album with a plethora of instruments including bass, guitar, keyboards, synthesizers, vibraphone, marxophone, flute, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, and French horn. While that’s all fine and dandy, why fix what’s not broken? If Brion can produce that effect with a violin and a piano, why can’t Elizondo? And why can’t Sony just be happy with what they get!?
Elizondo’s version does have the +1 of an additional song, “Parting Gift”. Other than that, it’s simply a cleaner, poppier version of the first. It also loses a soft, ambient, cosmic vibe that Brion’s version had going. Softly echoing vocals on top of Apple’s voice provided for an unexpected, yet welcome change. She’s always been our favorite little space-cadet and this was an apt reflection.
All in all, this album is still awesome no matter what version you listen to, just in their own respective ways. I will still be eagerly awaiting her new album, due out this spring, no matter who produces it!