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Sony cuts Apple's fans to the core

Published February 8, 2005

If there was a better way to go, then it would find me

I can't help it, the road just rolls out behind me

Be kind to me or treat me mean

I make the most of it, I'm an extraordinary machine.

- Extraordinary Machine, Fiona Apple

Fans of Fiona Apple learned last year that they were going to have to wait a while before hearing the eccentric singer-pianist's third album.

Now, after learning that Apple's label, Sony Epic, may never release Extraordinary Machine, completed in May 2003, fans have taken matters into their own hands.

After demonstrators gathered outside Sony's New York headquarters last month to demand that the album be stocked in stores, an Epic representative said Apple was still recording her album.

Anyone following the story knows that's not true.

Although the Grammy-nominated Apple's first two critically acclaimed albums, Tidal (1996), released when she was 19, and Even the Pawn . . . (2000) both sold more than 1-million copies, executives at Sony have reportedly deemed Extraordinary Machine too uncommercial.

Jon Brion is the well-known producer who worked with Apple on Extraordinary Machine. In an interview with MTV last month, Brion discussed the delay of Apple's album. He explained that Sony was not releasing the album because the label hears no radio hits.

"The record company wants Criminal junior, and Fiona doesn't offer that up," Brion said. "She wrote that stuff when she was 16, and she's now in her mid 20s. She's extremely intelligent and writes this beautiful, really emotionally involved stuff that's very musical - lots of chord changes, very involved melodies, intensely detailed lyrics. It's just not the obvious easy sell to them."

Apple, 27, as fans know, is an uncompromising artist. Known for her offbeat behavior, Apple accepted her 1997 MTV Video Award for Best New Artist by lecturing the youth of America about the sham and artifice of the celebrity life. In the same rambling speech, she called the rock world so much "bull--."

In 2000, Apple had a well-publicized onstage flipout in Manhattan. Upset about faulty monitors, the singer tore her hair, punched her arm and cursed the critics she knew were thrilled to write about more eccentric behavior.

Now, Apple is standing by the songs she gave her label.

USA Today caught up with the press-shy singer at a January inauguration event in Washington. The paper asked Apple when her new album would hit stores.

"You'll probably know before I do," was Apple's reply.

Last year, two tracks from Extraordinary Machine leaked online: the nearly vaudevillian sounding title track and the bouncy A Better Version of Me. Both are thrilling and innovative. The title track is resplendent with serpentine lyrics and Apple's lusty alto. The music is a jazzy affair, filled with horns, piano, thumping strings.

Brion, whose own inventiveness is heard in the film scores for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Punch Drunk Love, said he's confident fans will hear the album one day.

"Eventually (Machine) will come out," Brion said. "People who do understand her and get what she's about are going to be thrilled. Is all this going to make radio play it? Probably not. Does she care? No."

Sony's refusal to release Apple's material so incensed one young man that he began a grass roots movement to call attention to the matter. Late last year, Dave Muscato launched an Internet site that explains Apple's predicament, with up-to-the-minute developments and a plea to send fake apples in protest to Sony's New York headquarters.

Muscato, 21, says he has been a fan of Apple's since he was 12, but as a musician himself, he sympathizes particularly with her plight.

"We feel her artistic talent is being stifled for numbers, for business, money," Muscato said in a telephone interview from his Columbia, Mo., home.

Muscato and volunteers involved in the Free Fiona campaign, including some of the tens of thousands who have signed a petition to Sony to release the album, argue that her situation illustrates why CD sales are suffering.

"All the major labels have these researchers who supposedly study what everyone wants to listen to and what we want," said Muscato, "but they're wrong. All they know is that pop and hip-hop sell the most. Unfortunately, it's not what everyone wants. They shouldn't make those decisions for all of us. "There is so much wonderful music out there that we don't have access to because major labels keep feeding us the same things," Muscato said.

* * *

Apple isn't the only woman getting attention for her noncommercial music. In a happier story, maverick singer Petra Haden had a truly wild concept, recorded it, and now is getting critical praise.

The daughter of free jazz legend Charlie Haden, Petra has always dabbled in musical oddities, first in her band That Dogand in collaborations with Beck, Cibo Matto and Sean Lennon.

Petra Haden Sings the Who Sell Out, being released Feb. 22 on Bar None, is an entirely a cappella rendition of the 1967 album by the Who. The concept was suggested to the singer by her buddy, bassist Mike Watt (Minutemen, Firehose).

Haden does every note of the album with just her voice: the tunes (Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand, I Can See For Miles, Tattoo), the Radio London jingles (commercials for Medac pimple cream and Jaguar automobiles), layering all the sounds on an eight-track, paying special attention to emulating the Who's original harmonies.

Haden also posed for the cover, at Watt's suggestion, just like the original, in a bathtub filled with baked beans.

"We went to Smart & Final and had to buy 10 huge cans of Heinz baked beans," Haden told Ice.

* * *

Pioneer British music writer Sylvie Simmons (Mojo, The Guardian, Creem) has mined her years of interviewing some of the kookiest rock stars on the planet and gone fictional with it in Too Weird for Ziggy, her first short story collection.

Simmons will read from the book, with Tampa singer-songwriter extraordinaire Ronny Elliott as musical guest, at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Globe Coffee Lounge, 532 First Ave. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 898-5282.

On Sunday, if you're not glued to the Grammys, check out Mr. Elliott again performing at the CD release party for his new album with a timely title, Valentine Roadkill. Elliott's shindig begins at 7 p.m. at the Springs Theatre, 8029 N Nebraska Ave. at the Hillsborough River in Tampa. (813) 254-5388. $10.

-- Gina Vivinetto can be reached at 727 893-8565 or

[Last modified February 7, 2005, 16:17:03]

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