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Them Apples

"Extraordinary Machine" is well above average, and sometimes scintillating. Plus, a Feist postscript.

11:00 PM, Nov 10, 2005 • By DAVID SKINNER
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SOMETIMES when I hear music on the radio, I think of the fact that other people are also listening. People possibly not as perfect as me. With pasts and regrets different from my own.

Post-love songs of the bitter, you-wronged-me variety make me wonder how many of my fellow radio listeners are arriving fresh from the other end of a romantic transaction. The bad end, you know. But does it matter? Such is the gift of music that even the dumpers and the abandoners get to imagine themselves as the victimized and the innocent when they sing along to classics like Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive."

Fiona Apple's 1996 debut album Tidal sold a tidy 2.7 million copies. It was an instant classic of the I-hope-you-suffer-like-I-have-suffered genre. Yet, among its buyers, there had to have been more than a few womanizers, manipulators, and others in the business of messing with the heads of pretty young women just like the temperamental and beautiful Miss Apple.

IT'S A SHORT STEP from hearing sympathetic music about the savage wars of romance to wondering what real-life events inspired such poetry. So it is to not surprising that Apple's new album, Extraordinary Machine, her third, would be more widely discussed for its accompanying soap opera--involving a famous now-ex boyfriend, a mutual friend who was also her producer but whose work was largely cashiered before being released online, and a few well-known second-order characters--than for its music, as released last month on CD. Apple has done quite a bit to invite such treatment, having carved out a melodramatic role for herself in the music scene by, among other things, telling an MTV Awards show audience, "Everybody out there that's watching, everybody that's watching this world, this world is bulls--and you shouldn't model your life about what you think that we think is cool."

This youthful impatience with sometime allies and the clichés of pageantry has not always served the singer well. She, of course, used the title of her second album to return serve to a music journalist whom she thought had crossed her in print. This alone would not have been a problem, but the indecipherable 90-word title itself might have taken an award for Most Self-Indulgent Gesture By A Female Vocalist (an especially competitive category, it so happens).

WITH HER THIRD ALBUM, however, the 28-year-old Apple proves that, public tantrums aside, she remains one of the few singular talents with any following in pop music. Her default sound of one-half piano and one-half dead-serious voice has expanded to accommodate a much wider and more interesting emotional and musical sensibility than she is being given credit for.

Apple has answered the standing challenge to the singer-songwriter--whether to go quiet and risk not being noticed or to adopt a bigger, more band-like sound in production and risk drowning out the individual voice--for the most part triumphantly.

"Extraordinary Machine," the most elegant track on the album threads cabaret singing through a perfectly droopy orchestra arrangement. The song requires a little more agility and classical training than Apple's singing always offers, but the result is nevertheless a halfway magnificent piece of songwriting, performance, and production. One waits impatiently for more singers to risk so much on an opening track, or to take an equal interest in enriching new pop music with ideas that come only from listening to the classically grounded and verbally playful masters of old pop music. "Tymps," the juicy, hip-hop-influenced fifth track does not require as much jazzy agility, but is just as spry and more consistent as a result.

The second track represents, unfortunately, one of the album's few blown opportunities. Talking and stalking over heavy-handed drumming with little help from spacey atmospherics, the overly long "Get Him Back" encourages the impression of Apple as too busy exercising demons to concentrate on tightening her music.

"O'Sailor," a natural choice for a single, nicely updates the classic Apple griping of the disappointed lover. Even better for its kind, though not as gently metaphorical with its subject, is the slow-motion putdown "Parting Gift," a return to the piano-plus-voice formula. The still-life comment of dribbling piano builds to a big dismissing, "Oh you silly, stupid pastime of mine, you were always good for a rhyme." Sitting on a midway landing is Apple's best word-picture and a perfect example of her me-talking-about-you-talking-about-me-type obsessiveness: "I took off my glasses while you were yelling at me once / More than once / So's not to see you see me react / Should've put 'em on, Should've put 'em on again / so I could see you see me, sincerely yelling back." To find the fun, mad, sneering music in such an egocentric but highly intelligent sensibility is something of a feat.