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Fiona Apple's new album wasn't released. It escaped.

The third collection of songs from the waifish-looking, throaty-voiced singer/songwriter was handed in to Sony/Epic, her label, in May 2003, according to a fan Web site, It was the first album she'd release in four years.

Why the nontraditional release? The fan site and other Internet sources speculate that Epic didn't hear a radio-friendly hit single on the album and refused to release it. But the real reasons behind the feud depend on who's answering the question.

Epic President Steve Barnett called the status of the album, titled "Extraordinary Machine," "sensitive" and refused to comment. Lois Najarian, Epic's senior vice president of publicity, said the company was working with Apple's management to resolve various issues.

"We want to continue to be in business with Fiona Apple," she said.

A source familiar with the situation who asked for anonymity speculated that the album's producer, Jon Brion, may have been behind much of the high-tech agitation. Rather than turning the album over to Epic in 2003, the source said that Epic had received it piecemeal from Brion, with songs in various stages of completion, and not as a finished work, over the course of the last two years.

Subsequent discussions of bringing in another producer to rework some of the tracks or record new songs may have agitated Brion and triggered the leak, though Brion denied that in a Newsweek interview.

Like a modern rearrangement of a long-forgotten show tune, "Extraordinary Machine" seemed a bit out of context. Apple's lyrics and singing were just as knowing and self-aware as her previous work, but with an unexpected pinch of humor. Shortly after the tracks were recorded, Brion expressed his confidence that the long-delayed album would soon be released, but that was it. Nothing from Fiona: No tour. No statements. Few sightings and no other new music.

Until a few weeks ago.

The entire 11-song "Extraordinary Machine" album appeared on one fan site, then several, in nearly CD-quality MP3 files for download.

This is not the first time an unreleased album by a successful artist reached the public before the record company intended. Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" was rejected by Reprise, then released on the Internet before its subsequent release by another record company. Other albums appear on peer-to-peer networks and fan sites before official release (and until cease and desist notices arrive from the Recording Industry Association of America), despite (or possibly because of) the best efforts of their record companies and managers. Most recently, the current U2 album, "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb," was in fans' hands (and their iPods and hard drives) a week before it hit the stores.

Apple's "Extraordinary Machine," however, may mark the first time a possibly unfinished album by a popular artist was released on the Internet. Its release has not gone unnoticed. A "Free Fiona" Web site arranged for fans to picket the Epic's New York offices.

Apple has remained silent on the release.

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