Viewers of the recent Martin Scorsese documentary on Bob Dylan will recall that the famed folkie released three of history's best albums -- "Blonde on Blonde" included -- in a 14-month period. And one of those was a double-disc set. Today, instead, we have singer/songwriter/musical martyr Fiona Apple who -- thanks to a well-documented combination of record label fumbling and artistic inertia -- took six years to release just one disc, her sublime new "Extraordinary Machine."
Inevitably, it isn't worth the wait -- "Blonde on Blonde" wouldn't have been worth that kind of wait, either -- but "Machine" is still pretty great, a giddy, inventive album that's one of the finest of the year. Originally recorded with longtime producer Jon Brion, "Extraordinary Machine" was, as almost everyone knows by now, shelved and (mostly) re-recorded with Mike Elizondo, a less auteur-y producer known for his work with Dr. Dre. Those who've heard the earlier version, which was leaked onto the Internet, will find that "Extraordinary" Part Deux doesn't differ too drastically from its predecessor, though it's been considerably stripped-down, smoothed out, and shorn of many, though not all, of its quirks.
The two surviving Brion tracks bookend the album: the closing piano-and-strings ballad "Waltz (Better Than Fine)" is a pointed ode to doing nothing ("No I don't believe in the wasting of time / But I don't believe that I'm wasting mine"); the opening title track is a spindly, faux-cabaret number that owes a great debt to both early Rufus Wainwright (another Brion client) and Gilbert and Sullivan. It simultaneously showcases the genius of the Apple/Brion collaborations (it's a nervy, superlative song) and demonstrates why an album filled with those collaborations would have been unworkable (about halfway through it would have begun to uncomfortably resemble Jewel fronting a road company production of "The Pirates of Penzance").
The rest of "Machine" is more restrained and linear, though by no means conventional. Most of the tracks here are meaty mid-tempo ballads that subtly tweak the standard singer-at-her-piano formula. There are standard, muted beats but most of the songs rely on unexpected instruments like optigans and marimbas: The bristly "Oh Well" is constructed around a gently wheezing pump organ and a French horn; "O' Sailor," precisely the sort of torchy ballad at which Apple excels, relies on strings and a Chamberlain; the slinky, sublime "Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)" is erected around a fuzzed-out organ.
Apple's voice is as much of a miracle as it ever was, and her songwriting is as crisp and unexpected. Who else could get away with couplets like: "I opened my eyes while you were kissing me once / And you looked as sincere as a dog / When it's the food on your lips / With which it's in love"?
Apple's gaze remains as inwardly focused as ever (there are Hilton sisters who are less self-involved), and while "Machine" concerns itself almost totally with a bad love affair, it is appealing even in its most indulgent moments. "My method is uncertain / It's a mess but it's working," she sings at one point, and she's half right. Apple is too good at what she does to be regarded as the erratic aunt of alt-pop, which is what happens when you take almost two presidential administrations to make an album. If she wants to claim her rightful place alongside the best artists of her generation, she had better get moving.