I'll be honest: I don't like this time of year. I don't have anything against Christmas or the holidays. I'm not some Scrooge who dislikes the spirit of the season (though I was cast as the Ghost of Christmas Future in fourth grade, mainly because that part consisted of being a looming, pointing presence who said nothing).
It's not even the end-of-year dance every business owner has to do with outstanding AR, trying like mad to get paid by the end of the year to have clean books. I've given up on worrying about that. What happens, happens.
Perhaps I'm hyperaware of how difficult the holidays are for many people: nothing like a time of forced cheer and that forced smile to place into stark relief those feelings that are easier to keep in check the remainder of the year. Right about now is a good time to check in with friends and loved ones who have lost people and are going through this season feeling bereft for the first time.
Or give those estranged from their families a call.
Your friends who haven't been able to have children are thrilled for you that you and your kids are celebrating, but it still hurts a bit to hear all about it – and then they feel terribly guilty when that envy surfaces.
So please be kind. Life is hard enough without having to grin and hear it through a month-long celebration when you're feeling anything but celebratory.
It's with these thoughts in mind that I chose today's album, from a master of minor key moods. Ladies and gentlemen, let's explore Fiona Apple's third album, Extraordinary Machine.
Let me begin by saying I have an unconditional love for Ms. Apple. After you play music long enough, play in bands, thinking about arrangements, how to create fascinating, engaging sonic textures a really disappointing thing happens: you begin listening to music with a clinical ear. You begin hearing only the seams in the mix, find yourself reverse-engineering a certain sound. You lose track of the art and notice only the tactics ("huh, I wonder why they used an SM-57 there rather than a condenser mic...")
She's one of the few musicians I can listen to and hear only the art, to be transported out of my monkey mind obsessed with figuring things out. It's one of the reasons I listen to Fiona and a handful of other musicians On Repeat.
Like every other 80s kid who came of age in the 90s, I first ran across Fiona Apple when "Criminal" began flooding the airwaves. (Remember radio?) What a strange hit single, that was. A song in A minor, hitting more F7, D#, Cm, and G#7's that you might hear in a full day's worth of listening on the pop stations.
When "Criminal" came out, I remember a youth pastor I knew give a talk to a Christian youth group based around the message of the song. If you remember this song in any detail, you are either reading with a very raised eyebrow or laughing as hard as I did at the time. The song, dear reader, is not exactly fit for a Christian sermon. The bit this fellow glommed on to to make his Christian exegesis was the chorus: What I need is a good defense/cause I'm feeling like a criminal/and I need to be redeemed/against the one I've sinned against/because he's all I ever knew of love.
The version that was taught changed only one letter of the lyrics I just typed out: because he's all I ever knew of love transformed into because He's all I ever knew of love.
And, friends, don't we all need a good defense in our fallen states?
(If you don't know the song, the video will give you a good idea of what the song is actually about.)
Anyway, Extraordinary Machine had a troubled journey to release. After two pretty quick releases – Apple's debut Tidal was released in 1996 followed by When the Pawn... in 1999 – Apple receded from the spotlight. When she returned to record what became Extraordinary Machine in 2002, she chose to work with producer Jon Brion. The two had previously worked together on When the Pawn... and Apple, after seriously contemplating retiring from music, agreed to make the album partially as a favor to Brion, who needed a project to distract him from the implosion of his long-term relationship.
The two recorded diligently and created a record that created a renewed sound for Apple. Orchestral, maximal, full arrangements that didn't exactly bury Apple's piano, but rendered it merely another instrument among equals. They recorded the full album, mixed it. Everything except mastered it. They presented it to the record label in summer 2003.
And the label hated it.
It was just too different, didn't center their star enough, changed her sound a little too much to be comfortable, predictable unit-shifter. They shelved it, to the frustration of Apple, Brion, and, increasingly Apple's fans.
Little by little, bits of the album were leaked. The title track and "Better Version of Me" were leaked in the summer of 2004. Eventually the entire album leaked in 2005, right about the same time that the label announced Apple was back in the studio to record her "second third album."
The label brought on Mike Elizondo to produce the new Extraordinary Machine, and that's the version most all of you likely know. (If you want to hear the original, Brion-produced version, you can listen to it here.)
The official release does include a few of the Brion recordings ("Extraordinary Machine" and "Waltz (Better than Fine)" – the opening and closing tracks, interestingly), but the album has a distinctly different feel to it. Fiona's piano is centered: loud, jazzy, and dominant. The drums are far more forward. It's a more aggressive record. More radio friendly.
It's amazing to me how the power dynamics of the music industry have shifted to radically in the 20 or so years since the drama around Extraordinary Machine. We now live in a time in which record labels have become almost obsolete.
Just try imagining a label going to an already-established musician and saying, "We don't like that. Rerecord it."
Do you have any idea how easy it is to record high-quality music and sell it online?
We live in a golden age for musical freedom and expression. Fiona's most recent album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters would have given heart palpitations (not the good kind) to a record label 20 years ago. Good god. But she just released it. Just recorded it and put it out at her whim.
Technology has changed many things. I am obsessed with how I can employ technology in my businesses to scale human-shaped legal services and products – and doing so allows me to compete with large firms that would have destroyed a tiny shop like me 20 years ago.
But I don't know that technology has changed any industry quite like it has music. It's changed tv and movies, sure: but it still takes huge budgets to record the shows you watch, and mammoth budgets to film the movies.
It takes a computer, a $200 program, and about $500 worth of microphones and preamps to record professional-grade music. If that.
If you don't have a song to sing, that's okay you can get along humming
That's it for Take 11 of On the Record. You can listen to Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine (the official release) on Tidal.
ALSO: I'm writing a novel, for some masochistic reason. More information here.