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FIONA APPLE

Extraordinary Machine

Epic

Rating: ***1/2

For all the chick singers counted as her forebears, Fiona Apple would be nowhere without Nina Simone (see review below). Apple's solitary piano brooding and sour-girl demeanor find precedent in Simone's contentious relationships with both her fans and music bizzers. After several years' hiatus, Apple continues to mine a Simone-esque persona in funky-white-chick guise, employing Dr. Dre crony Mike Elizondo as producer and making collaborative overtures to admirer Kanye West in Interview. Although still inferior to her NYC hometown's legendary white chocolateer Laura Nyro, Apple seems to be getting her act together. And this third record is rather deserving of the fans' prior complaints to Sony about its delayed release. Extraordinary Machine also cements Apple as Simone's most significant postmodern heir since the demise of Jeff Buckley. Tracks like "Please Please Please" sound like what the grand dame might've composed had she gone trip-hop. Then again, Simone would likely never have hawked her wares in insipid TV advertisements. Following Simone's famed '72 Carnegie Hall parting shot and Roberta Flack's Ghana-recorded performance on Soul To Soul, Apple could shirk this commercial taint by next tackling a live album wherein her funk is unfettered.

Track to burn: "Get Him Back"

GRETCHEN WILSON

All Jacked Up

Epic

Rating: **1/2

OK, we get it already: Gretchen Wilson is the country-rock Norma Rae! If Wilson's daily existence were a rock biopic, there'd be Smokey & the Bandit-era Sally Field playing her in leather 'n' denim, with terbacky chaw bulging her chipmunk cheeks. Lyrics about wilding on Jack Daniels, rejecting bling for homespun duds, and being a long-suffering housewife abound. Epic must be ecstatic with the way Wilson's savvy blend of Loretta Lynn's womanist consciousness, Tanya Tucker's hedonistic spunk, and Shania Twain's twang-face plays here in Red State America. Alas, Wilson's home state of Illinois is hardly the most Southern place and thus her protestations against Hollyweird's faux 'hos and their shallow ways -- as on this disc's "California Girls" -- ring a bit hollow. Is being aware of George "Possum" Jones truly the greatest virtue? Swearing fealty to bible and flag, "Politically Uncorrect" -- featuring Merle Haggard, of course -- will only further alienate those sensitive Coastopians with an ear for Americana. Last year, Wilson was definitely refreshing, giving the divas of moribund new country a scare. To wit: the newly dark-haired Faith Hill reclaiming her 'Sippi roots and claiming to eschew celebrity trappings in favor of simple, heartland verities. Yet until Wilson learns how to write (or hire songsmiths to pen) tunes complex enough to ride this land's conflicting worldviews -- like The Hag's own polarizing "Okie From Muskogee" -- she'll remain one-note compared to country's true outlaw scribes. Meanwhile, Wilson's one-note rebel yells make her Willie Nelson-esque western swing take on the Billie Holiday standard "Good Morning Heartache" (the CD's hidden track) seem that (like Uncle Tom's Cabin's Topsy) it jes' grew.

Track to burn: "Good Morning Heartache"

NINA SIMONE

The Soul of Nina Simone

RCA/Legacy

Rating: *****

Although the marketplace has been flooded with Nina Simone product since her death two years ago, this dual disc package is a fine representative collection for those unfamiliar with the singer-pianist's distinctive voice. The Soul gathers tracks like "To Love Somebody," "I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl" and Simone's beloved "My Baby Just Cares For Me" (favored by indie cinema and romantic comedy music supervisors alike). The disc is a fine illustration of the Tryon, NC, native's facility with a range of styles from pop to blues to jazz. Simone even gives Led Zeppelin a run for its money with her version of Blind Willie Johnson's "Nobody's Fault But Mine." "Save Me" is a funky rocker that'd make Soulive weep with envy. The accompanying DVD is the greatest treasure, featuring late-60s footage from NYC's Bitter End and the Harlem Festival in Central Park -- the latter of which has never been aired in the US. Contrasting these passionate, grittier performances with the DVD's early Sullivan show appearance makes clear that Nina Simone needed Black Power for her unique beauty and sound to be recognized.

Track to burn: "Save Me"

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