Fiona Apple, "Extraordinary Machine"
It's been six years since Fiona Apple's last album, and creeping up on a decade since she released her first, the critically and commercially successful "Tidal." The intervening years have seen some hard times -- she split up with director Paul Thomas Anderson in 2001, the recording process for the new album has had its share of fits and starts -- and so the reviews of "Extraordinary Machine" comment freely on both the public persona and the music itself. "Few albums will be released this year with a more tortured back story than Fiona Apple's 'Extraordinary Machine,'" begins Rolling Stone (four stars out of five). Of course, as the New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones writes, baring her heart publicly has always been central to Apple's music: "Her themes haven't really changed -- the pronoun 'he' is rarely followed by anything sanguine -- but Apple is no longer simply at the mercy of her emotions." Still, argues Billboard, "With a less confessional and more confrontational attitude, this long-gestating album has lost the tenderness found on 'Tidal' and some of 'When the Pawn ...,' but her execution still commands attention." USA Today focuses almost entirely on the persona, spending most of its review making a broad-brush statement that seems beside the point -- "Rock 'n' roll drama queens tend to fall into two categories: those more adept at reaping bad publicity than doing anything interesting as musicians, à la Courtney Love; and those whose creative gifts make us overlook, or at least tolerate, their more irritating and self-destructive quirks." -- but gives the album three stars.
Much has been made over the fact that Apple basically recorded the album twice, first with Jon Brion, who's produced albums from Badly Drawn Boy and Kanye West, and then a second time with Brian Kehew and Eminem collaborator Mike Elizondo. Apple has insisted the tortured path the album took was her call, saying she was unsatisfied with the first version. Frere-Jones in the New Yorker notes: "In fact, the differences matter less than you might think. The songs from Apple's collaboration with Brion sound as though they were being played on a calliope inside a merry-go-round. Elizondo and Kehew's arrangements are more bass-heavy and less whimsical. But, whichever version you end up preferring, Apple is in charge: the songs follow her around like a boat on a towline." Rolling Stone sees that confidence as well, opining, "Lyrically, Apple has never been as clever, as angered or as anguished. On the menacing 'Red Red Red,' she compares trying to get to the hidden heart of a secretive lover with mining for diamonds: 'I think if I didn't have to kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill myself doing it/ Maybe I wouldn't think so much of you.'" Or, as the Times writes, "The tracks still sprout horns, (synthetic) strings and the sounds of harp, cimbalom and vibraphone, and Ms. Apple's new vocals are even more assured in the remakes. She glides from anger to self-lacerating passion to knowing amusement. Her love life may be a calamity, but she has never seen herself so clearly."
Franz Ferdinand, "You Could Have Had It So Much Better"
The critical response to Franz Ferdinand's new album is a study in the dynamics of sophomore albums: Reviewers seem equal parts pleased and confused that the band has managed to make a follow-up album that doesn't either take itself too seriously or try too hard, even if perhaps it fails to dazzle as much as their 2004 debut. Everyone seems to agree that the album holds few, if any, surprises, but the question is over whether that is a good thing or a bad one. On the negative end of the scale, Rolling Stone (three and a half stars) says, "The problem with 'You Could Have It So Much Better' is, as with so many second albums, consistency. Franz Ferdinand never run out of knockout licks and vocal twists. But halfway through the record, some of the combinations feel more like schematics than songs." Spin, who calls the band "the Owen Wilsons of rock," agrees by disagreeing: "But mostly, 'You Could Have It So Much Better' sounds exactly like what you'd expect, with pumping disco beats and lookin'-sharp guitars on track after propulsive track ... This normally would be a sign of bad or lazy songwriting, but in the past year Franz Ferdinand probably have learned why business travelers value consistency over novelty -- at the end of a long day, you just don't wanna be surprised." The Guardian (four out of five stars) is more direct in its praise: "If there's a more exciting opening track this year than 'The Fallen,' you wouldn't let it near anyone with a heart condition."
As Pitchfork (rating: 8.3) argues, it's exactly that unrestrained love of the simple, the hook-laden, the stomping side of rock that makes their music so compelling: "As it turns out, Franz Ferdinand, like many an effective singles band, are immensely more lovable when they're on top of the world. Casual, insouciant greatness is kind of their thing, and these cocky kids seem to have known it from Day One ... Give these guys the Mercury Prize, and do they sit down fretting about making some kind of serious statement? No, they come back with a big ridiculous stomper." The New York Times is equally enthusiastic, writing, "The band's second album is far more than a sequel. Along with a new batch of brittle kiss-offs like 'You're the Reason I'm Leaving,' the songs also take on the world, from 'The Fallen,' about Jesus as an insurgent, to the title song, a latter-day successor to 'Satisfaction.'" In fact, a comparison to the Stones comes up in several reviews, with the Guardian musing that "if the title track is too indebted to the Rolling Stones' (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, it redeems itself with the splendid line: 'I refuse to be a cynical goon.'" USA Today caps its review with a sentiment that captures the slightly begrudging tone behind most of the reviews: "This raffish foursome might be a little too clever and self-aware, but in this era of anemic rock 'n' roll, you could have it so much worse."
The Magic Numbers, "The Magic Numbers"
The Magic Numberss arrive on American shores preapproved by the music press across the pond; when their eponymous debut was released over the summer in the U.K., it spawned a number of hits, including "Forever Lost," and kicked up a dust storm of comparisons to Brian Wilson and the Mamas and the Papas -- as the Guardian wrote back in July, "This debut album arrives amid a shower of phrases like 'hotly tipped' and 'hugely anticipated' ... It ought to add up to a rather fine night out, since the Numbers play an alluring kind of soulful harmony-pop that suggests they've already been cramming at the School of Brian [Wilson]." Rolling Stone (three and a half stars out of five) embraces the album somewhat timidly, writing: "Their debut nearly lives up to the hype, blending rainy-day folk, shambling indie rock and heartbreak harmonies into a dog-eared pop record your mother could love." The Post gushes: "The purity of vision on the Magic Numbers' self-titled debut couldn't be more apparent. This record has vocal arrangements as complex as those Brian Wilson wrote for the Beach Boys and is as easy on the ear as a Mamas and the Papas melody. Like those two legendary acts, this modern Anglo-American breakout band revels in songs that celebrate romance."
And while it may unavoidably call older pop groups to mind, the New York Daily News writes that it still manages to sound fresh in today's music climate: "It doesn't sound like anything else out there, which may stem, in part, from the group's unusual background ... The foursome exudes a hippie-esque image, emphasized in their down-home demeanor and bent for smiling widely on stage ... There's also the group's vintage look and earthy figures to consider. They look like Jerry Garcia and Mama Cass squared." Spin reaches for a more with-it kind of metaphor: "The Magic Numbers' self-titled debut album is like a frayed pair of Levi's that you tell people you got at a thrift store but really bought pre-beaten at Urban Outfitters: Their music has many elements of '50s girl group rock and '60s co-ed folk, but glossed over with high production value and indie/twee pop cheerfulness." If neither conveys what you should expect, take the Guardian's pithy summation: "It's classic pop, rejuvenated."
-- Scott Lamb