By JEFF LEEDS
New York Times News Service
Fiona Apple, the smoky-voiced singer whose unreleased third album turned into a cause celebre for her fervent fans and was leaked online, has recorded new versions of its songs and plans to release the album on Oct. 4, according to people involved with the recording.
The album, Extraordinary Machine, is the Grammy-winning artist’s first studio CD in six years, and is likely to be one of the industry’s most closely watched albums at the start of the preholiday rush. The CD may also place Apple and her label, Epic Records, in the unusual position of watching how fans and critics judge her new release against the leaked versions of her earlier recordings of the same songs. The 12-song CD includes nine new versions of material that had circulated on unlicensed Internet file-swapping networks, two previously leaked songs and one brand-new one, Parting Gift.
The label is wasting little time in tapping fans’ curiosity. Epic plans on Monday to unveil a new version of Apple’s Web site, on which fans can hear two of the album’s songs, Parting Gift and the rerecorded O’ Sailor. The latter will also be available for listening at myspace.com, the online social network. On Tuesday, major online music services plan to begin selling O’ Sailor as a single, and the iTunes music service by Apple Computer is expected to offer an exclusive bundle of the two songs for $1.98.
Mike Elizondo, the album’s producer, said most of the songs sound “radically different” from the earlier, leaked renditions, which Fiona Apple had made with the producer Jon Brion. Elizondo said that he had listened to the earlier cuts, but “once we headed off in our direction I didn’t go back to reference them.”
“Everything was done from scratch,” he added.
Only time will tell whether that will turn out to be a shrewd move. The leaked version of the album earned favorable reviews from critics. Jon Pareles, writing in The New York Times in April, called — it “an oddball gem.” On the other hand, the songs never became as popular online as other bootleg sensations, like The Grey Album, the celebrated — and unauthorized — compilation of songs pairing Jay-Z’s raps with the Beatles’ melodies that circulated online last year. To many, the muted response online suggested that Epic and Apple were right to continue polishing the material. In an e-mail message Sunday, Apple said: “Now that my album is finally finished, I am very, very excited to have people hear what we did. I am so proud of it, and of all of us who worked on it.”
Epic has also been hungry to release a new CD from Apple, who burst onto the pop scene in 1996 with a low, smoldering voice and an intriguing twist on confessional songwriting. Her first CD, Tidal, sold 2.7 million copies. The second, When the Pawn, was released in 1999 and has sold 920,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Given the amount of time since her last album and the still-avant-garde nature of the finished songs, many people involved with Apple’s career expect her label to take a laid-back and low-cost approach to marketing the album, relying partly on word-of-mouth to build an audience.
But until now, the evolution of Extraordinary Machine had all the makings of a public-relations disaster for Epic and its corporate parent, Sony BMG Music Entertainment. In January, Brion told MTV News that he had completed the album in May 2003, and that the company had shelved it. Fans organized online to demand its release.
Record executives, however, insist Apple herself believed the album remained a work in progress. “It was never in a place where she wanted it out,” said one executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect a relationship with Apple. Though the leak began with just two tracks, eventually 11 wound up on the Internet. Apple was already several months into rerecording many of them with Elizondo, who has been known primarily for his work as a session musician and writer for the rap megaproducer Dr. Dre.
When the earlier versions were leaked, “for a split second I was like, ‘Are we going to get to keep working on this?'” Elizondo said. But “there wasn’t even a moment where anybody said anything,” he continued. “I think from right out of the gate, this is the collection of songs she wanted for her record.”
Credit: The New York Times