Saturday, December 15, 2012

Fiona Apple’s original (and still-unreleased) "Extraordinary Machine”

Note: In 2005, I was intrigued by the Free Fiona fan campaign, so I pitched and wrote this for The Miami Herald. It was picked up by a few other papers, running in a severely edited form. The version that the Herald published was also edited for space, so here's the full original piece I'd submitted. Also, a completely reworked version of Apple's album was subsequently released by the record company. A comparison of each version is here.
The extraordinary release of Fiona Apple’s new album

Fiona Apple’s new album wasn’t released. It escaped.

The third collection of songs from the waifish looking but throaty-voiced singer/songwriter reportedly was handed into Sony/Epic, her label, in May 2003. Her previous album, the one with a 57 word title (popularly know as "When the Pawn … ") was released in 1999 and fans wondered what had become of Ms. Apple since then.

Sessions for the third collection began with Jon Brion, a quirky but meticulous musician who played guitar on the first album and produced the second one, at the helm and the results were eagerly awaited. But that’s where the story gets murky. It’s been speculated that Epic didn’t hear a single on the album and refused to release it.

That was nearly two years ago. Not a note was heard until last August, when the title song of the new set, “Extraordinary Machine,” appeared (where else?) on the Internet.

Like a modern rearrangement of a long-forgotten show tune, “Extraordinary Machine” seemed a bit out of context. Apple’s lyrics and singing were slightly mannered, but just as knowing and self-aware as her previous work, with an unexpected pinch of humor added to the mix. Brion’s production and (presumable) arrangement was jazzy, but also reminiscent of Beatlesque art rock, with strings and horns. (Paul McCartney ought to look him up.)

Shortly thereafter, producer Brion announced the track listing and expressed his confidence that the long-delayed album would soon be released, but that was it; nothing from Fiona: No tour. No statements. Few sightings and no other new music.

Until a few weeks ago.

The entire 11 song “Extraordinary Machine” album appeared on one fan site, then several, in nearly CD-quality .mp3 files for download. Which it promptly — and repeatedly — was.

This is not the first time an unreleased album by a successful artist reached the public before the record company intended. Bob Dylan’s “Basement Tapes” was bootlegged as “The Great White Wonder” in 1969. “Get Back” by The Beatles was widely available before a remixed and rearranged version by producer Phil Spector morphed into “Let It Be” a year later. In 2000, The Dave Matthews Band’s final sessions with incumbent producer Steve Lillywhite were rejected by Matthews and RCA, after which most tracks were leaked to the public. They were later re-recorded and “officially” issued. And Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” was rejected by Reprise, then streamed on the net from the band’s web site before its subsequent release by Nonesuch, a corporate sibling of original label Reprise. Other albums appear on peer-to-peer networks and fan sites prior to their official release (and until cease and desist notices arrive from the RIAA), despite (or possibly because of) the best efforts of their record companies and managers. Most recently, the current U2 album, “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb” was in fans’ hands (and their ipods and hard drives) a week before it hit the stores.

Apple’s “Extraordinary Machine,” however, may mark the first time an album that was supposedly rejected by the label (and possibly approved by the artist) became available to the public in this manner.

Its release has not gone unnoticed. A “Free Fiona” web site organized an in-person (as opposed to online) demonstration, so fans picketed the record company’s offices and were encouraged to send apples to Sony Music president Andy Lack in protest. The company issued a terse statement: "We join music lovers everywhere in eagerly anticipating her next release," which said everything — and nothing.

The Herald reached one senior Epic executive by telephone who declined to discuss Fiona Apple on or off the record, refusing to even allow an attributed quote of “No comment.” Epic president Steve Barnett, when asked by a Herald writer about the status of the Fiona Apple album, affably responded with “That’s sensitive,“ and promptly transferred the telephone call to Epic Senior VP of Publicity Lois Najarian. She allowed that the company was working with the artist’s management to resolve various issues, and refused to provide substantive details of the negotiations, which she called “proprietary,” but added, “We want to continue to be in business with Fiona Apple.”

A source familiar with the situation hinted strongly that Brion may have been behind much of the high-tech agitation. Rather than handing the album in to the label in 2003, the source suggested that Epic had received it piecemeal from Brion, with songs in various stages of completion, and not as a finished work. There may have been subsequent discussions of bringing in another producer to either rework some or all of the existing tracks, or record one or more new songs that were more likely, in Epic’s opinion, to receive commercial radio airplay. Whether or not Brion was the source of the leaked tracks (which he strongly denied in an interview with Newsweek’s Lorraine Ali), it put the company in an awkward position, especially since Apple remained mum and didn’t offer a public opinion either way. Some have speculated that she agrees with Epic and doesn’t like her new album or considers it to be unfinished. Her management may not be helping the press or Epic by maintaining its silence, but they undoubtedly know that the growing interest and mystique ensures increased attention when the finished product is ultimately and officially released.

The tracks have been downloaded extensively and also are available on various peer-to-peer networks, but the excitement isn’t limited to fans. Highly favorable reviews were published and posted in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, MTV, and Newsweek among other media. A Seattle radio station bravely aired several songs before Epic stepped in with its inevitable cease and desist order.

In any case, the songs that have surfaced are compelling and quite entertaining, revealing a new maturity both in Apple’s lyrics and vocals. Brion’s clever and complex production and arrangements serve the mostly jazzy pop tunes quite well.

The future of “Extraordinary Machine” may not be clear but one thing is. Accidentally or on purpose, whenever or whatever Fiona Apple does next — officially or not — people will be watching, listening and probably downloading. (Note: a rerecorded version of “Extraordinary Machine” was subsequently released. The "bootleg" has never been officially and legally available.)

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