I have trouble now even remembering.

November 19, 2009

I never really got fully on the Fiona Apple train. I remember she was hip in the late ’90s and a lot of my female friends at high school all seemed to swear by the Tidal album and some of the pervier dudes found the “Criminal” video ridiculously alluring (I don’t know if it’s weird that I never did).

But I remember the first time I heard the song “Extraordinary Machine.” It was a rainy day, I was in my car and it came on NPR (which is weird because I listen to the radio so rarely in my car — I must have been changing CDs). It stopped me. I just listened and thought, “My God is this clever.” I remember hearing it again at a New Year’s Eve party in Chicago and demanding people in the room quiet down so I could listen to it.

Eventually I got around to getting the album, but because of my indifference to Fiona’s career up to that point, I really had no idea about Extraordinary Machine‘s backstory, nor its involvement with one of my several untouchable musical darlings, Jon Brion.

For those who don’t know the story, Apple started working on the album in 2002 with Jon Brion, who apparently wanted to do the album to pull himself out of his own emotional turmoil after breaking up with his longtime girlfriend while he was scoring Punch-Drunk Love (one of my favorite films and soundtracks, mind you). Apple agreed, but she didn’t have a ton of songs.

So they started working together on material, but the lack of direction and deadlines seemed to bother the label heads at Epic a bit, who wanted a deadline and some ear candy after Apple’s 1999 album, When the Pawn… proved to be a bit of a commercial disaster. Work continued through 2003 between California and London, but Epic wasn’t hearing anything it could push as a single, and despite futile additions and reworkings of songs, things weren’t clicking for the label.

This had a two-pronged effect. On one hand, Apple’s fans wanted the damn album. Articles and interviews with Brion were coming out where he seemed to speak favorably about the album’s material, however difficult it may have been to record. But Epic still wasn’t interested and sat on the album, so as things go in this day and age, tracks started to leak out of the vaults and on to the Internet.

Epic wanted the damn album too and Fiona went back into the studio without Brion to try making more commercial versions of the songs on which they’d previously toiled. Finally in October 2005, the official version of Extraordinary Machine hit store shelves with production duties handled by Brian Kehew and Mike Elizondo, the producers basically stripping all the Brion-produced tracks down to Apple’s piano and rebuilding from there.

Hardcore fans (or those with passing interest in great shelved albums) probably have both versions of the record, so it’s created a debate amongst Apple fans for years as to which versions are better, and hey — why not use that as the leap off point for this months’ “Vs.”?

Unsurprisingly I find a lot of the Brion versions of songs preferable — “Better Version of Me” wins by miles as far as I’m concerned — but “Tymps” presents a real headscratcher for me.

On one hand, I LOVE the Brion version. The live drumming is just ten kinds of fabulous and the instrumentation veers into a bit of a cooky direction, but it’s kind of absurdly brilliant. The “proper” released version is a bit more syncopated, relying on processed beats and synths, but at the same time, it’s got its own kind of power — although it careens off the tracks momentarily at the 1:49 mark.

And frankly I think the strength of both versions is in Apple’s songwriting. It’s a wonderfully self-conscious song and Apple’s delivery highlights the “…dammit” feel in both.

But for the drumming alone, I gotta go with the Brion version. You?

Fiona Apple vs. Fiona Apple
Used to Love Him vs. Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)

Fiona Apple – Used to Love Him (Jon Brion version)

Fiona Apple – Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song) (Final version)

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