As befits the daughter of a preacherman, Tori Amos is blessed with a heady voice of intense, wine-like richness. Drunk with feeling and aurally intimate, it is nearly operatic in its ornate agility and inextricable link to her resonant, purposefully asymmetrical piano playing. The entire Little Earthquakes album — led by “Silent All These Years,” the song that introduced Amos to her public — follows this simple voice-and-keys blueprint and is strongly reminiscent of the first two Kate Bush albums. A variety of producers layer on oblique orchestration, stringed instruments and percussion; the spare piano sound is so distinct, however, that such embellishments are barely noticeable. The string-laden ballad “Winter” is elegantly tender and evocative of snowdrifts and childhood fantasies; “China” is nearly as lovely. “Tear in Your Hand” drops references to Neil Gaiman’s masterful Sandman comic-book series (the two are mutual admirers). “Happy Phantom” strikes an uncharacteristically jaunty chord, as Amos delights in her own imagination, while “Crucify” accurately skewers the psychological architecture of guilt. Amos struck a feminist chord with the emotionally raw, even confrontational sexual tone of some lyrics (“Precious Things” issues the devastating put-down “So you can make me cum/That doesn’t make you Jesus”; “Leather” begins “Look I’m standing naked before you/Don’t you want more than my sex”), paving the way for Alanis Morissette. But she quashed any unsympathetic prurient interest in the stunning a cappella “Me and a Gun,” which starkly, unflinchingly details her own rape experience. With hardly a weak moment to detract from its introspective womanliness, Little Earthquakes is a legitimate ’90s analogue to Carole King’s Tapestry.
While not as consistently striking as its predecessor, Under the Pink doesn’t slavishly repeat the Earthquakes formula, and Amos’ stylistic experimentation makes for excellent, challenging listening. The opening “Pretty Good Year” begins innocently enough with familiar gentle piano melodies but the calm is eventually broken by a savage crescendo; at the album’s close, “Yes, Anastasia” endlessly rises and falls with orchestrated orgasmic aplomb. In between, the brief, brittle “Icicle” wittily remembers childhood masturbation in the shadow of religion (“When they say ‘take of his body,’ I think I’ll take from mine instead”), and Nine Inch Nails auteur Trent Reznor (another mutual fan: check the lyrics of “Precious Things”) guests to good effect on the elegiac “Past the Mission.” But a cranky tirade against “The Waitress” (murderous mantra: “I believe in peace, bitch”) quickly grows irritating. The album’s most intriguing tracks — “God” (with its sultry groove and squawking guitar) and the sauntering cascade of “Cornflake Girl” — use a full band sound as the organic foundation instead of mere layering. With the quasi- danceable “Space Dog” (a rare lyrical flop; who could relate to gibberish like “Colonel Dirtyfishydishcloth”?), Amos again follows Kate Bush, in the embrace of electronics and dance rhythms.
Self-produced in Ireland and New Orleans, Boys for Pele is more Amos than most people can handle: eighteen diverse tracks adding blues (“Professional Widow,” “In the Springtime of His Voodoo”) and gospel (“Way Down”) to the more familiar pure piano gems (“Horses,” “Twinkle”) and Under the Pink‘s fuller percussive pop (“Caught a Lite Sneeze”). Thematically, Boys for Pele appears to be a statement of independence from a former boyfriend and other male mentors. (The cover photo of her lounging on a ramshackle porch with a rifle nestled in her lap, a snake tangled in her rocker and a pair of dead birds hanging past her shoulder certainly sends a clear enough message.) Pop-culture references (Mr. Sulu, Angie Dickinson, etc.) abound, but the lyrics’ essential meanings are utterly personal. If Amos has become more obsessive — even obtuse — fine, because her songwriting here is superb. The mystic muse whose inattention left Under the Pink inconsistent has returned in force. Most exciting of all is her use of harpsichord for many cuts, letting its authoritative baroque tone infuse “Blood Roses” and “Talula” with richness and resonance. In sum, her best to date.
from the choirgirl hotel is another dark and swirling reel through Amos’ musical imagination; some pieces embrace an almost gothic sensibility. The muted verses of “Black Dove (January)” explode into soaring choruses, and the dull scraping percussion noises that enliven “Cruel” hark back again to her familiarity with NIN (“Dance with the Sufis / Celebrate your Top 10 in the charts of pain”). The insistent piano riff that opens “Bliss” is quickly supplemented by treated vocals and electric guitars. The quiet-loud dynamic and the stronger rhythm section, especially Matt Chamberlain on percussion, impart the feel of a dangerous nightclub. “Raspberry Swirl” and the grating “Father Lucifer” were both remixed for dance-floor purposes, as was the Kennedy-era reminiscence “Jackie’s Strength.” Against this setting, the stately breakup ballad “Northern Lad” gains greater resonance than it might have claimed in more homogeneous surroundings.
To Venus and Back was to be Amos’ first live album, but — her creative muse being what it is — it arrived accompanied by a full-length studio CD of new material. The Venus Orbiting disc includes the delightful piano pop of “Concertina” and “Glory of the 80s” and “1000 Oceans,” a tearstained ballad on a par with “China.” However, “Riot Poof,” “Spring Haze” and the irritating “Datura” are lesser additions to the catalogue. Amos’ songwriting here is more straightforward and direct than on Boys for Pele or choirgirl, sometimes showing a playful sensibility that’s often been missing. The 75-minute Live. Still Orbiting concert disc mixes longtime favorites (the drawn-out “grrrl” on “Precious Things”) and some less familiar material, including performances of such B-sides as “Cooling,” “Sugar” and “Purple People.” The renditions of “Cornflake Girl” and “Girl” here are particularly fine.
For a woman with a history of exciting, even revelatory, interpretations of other songwriters’ work, the all-covers Strange Little Girls is a stunning flop, a failure on almost every conceivable level — conceptual, artistic, commercial. Her final album for Atlantic reeks of contractual obligation. Even the multiple photos of Amos that variously decorate the disc’s four versions indicate an inability to fix a purpose: a concept album recasting “male” songs in Amos’ resolutely feminine artistic voice? A Pinups-style review of artists who inspired Amos in her younger days? It’s totally unclear. Some of the tracks are merely tedious (slowing down Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence,” giving perfunctory treatment to 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love”), but some are shockingly inept. Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” is ghastly; the Velvets’ “New Age” is a lukewarm muddle; and John Lennon’s “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” is atrocious, made even worse by the dimwitted irony of radio clips about his murder. Amos gets courage and contrast points for trying Slayer’s “Raining Blood” and the Stranglers’ title song. The few high marks on the album are a lithe take on Lloyd Cole’s “Rattlesnakes” and a bloodcurdlingly deadpan piano-voice rendition of Eminem’s “’97 Bonnie and Clyde.” Joe Jackson’s “Real Men,” which may be the album’s theme song, is refreshing in its simple presentation. All the same, most of the worthwhile material could have been saved for B-sides.
In light of the covers album and the end of Amos’ deal with Atlantic, the release of Scarlet’s Walk was met with some trepidation. But Amos swept that aside with a magnificent, epic take on American history and mythology. The album is a metaphorical exploration of the continent from Native American suffering (“Wampum Prayer”) to 9/11 (“I Can’t See New York”). The splendid central track, “A Sorta Fairytale,” ties Amos’ personal dialogues with an inclusive sense of shared destiny. “Taxi Ride”, “Another Girl’s Paradise” and “Don’t Make Me Come to Vegas” are as good. This is her strongest work since Boys for Pele, and one of the best albums of her career.
Welcome to Sunny Florida, a concert DVD, also includes a bonus CD, Scarlet’s Hidden Treasures, containing six tracks omitted from Scarlet’s Walk.
Despite a comfortable family life in England with her husband, producer Mark Hawley, and their new daughter, Amos has scarcely reduced her output. The Beekeeper is as daunting in length as Boys for Pele or Scarlet’s Walk (19 tracks, 79 minutes). Here, rather than continental ramblings, the imagery is domestic and floral. Using a garden as its central metaphor, The Beekeeper is perhaps Amos’ prettiest album musically, without the clanging percussion, lurching harpsichords or shrieking vocals that have given her music the frisson of danger. Not that the subject matter is milquetoast: religion (“Original Sinsuality”, “Marys of the Sea”) and war (“General Joy”) join a delicate duet with Damien Rice on “The Power of Orange Knickers.” But “Sleeps With Butterflies” and “Jamaica Inn” are simply gorgeous, and “Sweet the Sting” has a slinky propulsion. On the whole, however, The Beekeeper meanders too much to be riveting in the way Scarlet’s Walk is.
Two years later, not one to shrink from the grand statement, Amos released another hefty new album, American Doll Posse. Taking 79 minutes for 23 tracks this time, she again presents a coherent theme, starting with the album art. This is an assertive — one might say aggressive — record that showcases her band’s rhythm section more than any album since from the choirgirl hotel: drummer Matt Chamberlain and bassist Jon Evans, plus a lot of rock guitars from Mac Aladdin. The “dolls” of the album title — all Toris of different costumage and supposedly reflecting different facets of history and politics — are credited with the singing, and each number is presented in the voice of one of the five characters. Even fans may find the artifice tedious and distracting, but the songs and keyboards are all unmistakably Amos’ own. The overall tone is “peeved,” from the anti-Bush screed “Yo George” which opens the record to the withering tone of the (self-directed) “Fat Slut” and the skeptical political musings of the gorgeous “Dark Side of the Sun.” The single “Big Wheel” is snappy enough for pop radio, and “Bouncing Off Clouds” has the twitchy, piano-and-rhythm-section appeal of singles like “God” and “Bliss.” An album of this scale is difficult to get one’s hands around, but there are worthy moments scattered throughout: the swirling, baroque string section in “Girl Disappearing,” the slinky cabaret pop of “You Can Bring Your Dog,” the lurching “duet” of “Body and Soul.” The arena-rock guitar flourishes and quiet piano balladry also add value. There are a host of wry asides, like “Programmable Soda,” and some wicked humor to boot. But the album’s sheer weight is daunting. It’s hard to shake the feeling that the record should have been held to 15 tracks. Eighteen max.
The 20-track Tales of a Librarian recaps Amos’ Atlantic years, with many of the songs presented in alternate versions or mixes and a DVD of “soundcheck” versions of additional songs. The best thing about the compilation may be the inspired presentation: each song is listed with the Dewey Decimal System number for its ostensible subject matter. So “Playboy Mommy” is filed under 610 Medicine and Health: 618 Miscarriage. The set includes several unearthed B-sides, although the re- recorded “Mary” and “Sweet Dreams” are both too measured and sedate for those who remember the songs’ earlier incarnations. Little Earthquakes is strongly emphasized, while Under the Pink and Boys for Pele also have decent representation; To Venus and Back and from the choirgirl hotel, however, get short shrift, and Strange Little Girls is totally ignored. The two new songs (“Angels” and “Snow Cherries From France”) are pleasant but don’t stand up to her best material.
Amos’ work is also compiled in a lavish, five-disc collection called A Piano: The Collection. The gorgeous (if expensive) piano-decorated boxed set takes a chronological approach, starting with Little Earthquakes and its associated demos, alternate mixes and ephemera, and moving forward up to The Beekeeper. (Again, it pointedly excludes the cover disc Strange Little Girls.) For the devoted fan, the most attractive aspect of the set may well be the disc of hard-to-find cover songs, B-sides, medleys and other rarities.
The fifth disc is well-nigh essential, since Amos for a long time habitually packed her CD singles with at least three extra tracks per disc (several albums worth in all!) rather than redundant remixes or live tracks. Despite years of rumors, those sides have never been comprehensively compiled (not even on The Piano, unfortunately), so fans have been forced to seek out her singles and scrape through mediocre soundtracks to hear the whole story. Three particularly great originals — as fine as anything on the first two albums — are the melancholy gem “Upside Down” (found on the US Winter EP, a good five-song value), the delicate “Honey” (from the American Cornflake Girl) and the soaring live favorite “Flying Dutchman” (China). The US Crucify and the British Winter EPs both feature a trio of fascinatingly rearranged (for voice and piano) covers: the Stones’ “Angie,” Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You” and a muted “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (which Nirvana had released only months earlier). Crucify is a live EP, offering warm versions of four Little Earthquakes songs recorded in Cambridge in April ’92. God shows off Amos’ instrumental chops with an abstract rendition of “Home on the Range” and two instrumentals (“All the Girls Hate Her” and “Over It”), while three more hauntingly performed covers — Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9” (the start of piano grunge?) and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” — made the British Cornflake Girl EP one of the most sought-after collectables in Amos’ catalogue.
Caught a Lite Sneeze comes with an additional five-track suite entitled “Silly Songs,” which includes two short, sharp ditties (“Graveyard” and “Toodles Mr. Jim”) and the oddball “This Old Man” and “That’s What I Like Mick.” The (dramatically altered) Hey Jupiter (“Dakota Mix”) EP features an extraordinary live version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as well as a pairing of “Sugar” and “Honey.”
“Professional Widow,” butchered by Armand Van Helden into dancefloor fodder with the “honey bring it close to my lips” the only recognizable element, hit #1 on the UK dance charts, and prompted a slew of remixes in ensuing years, most of them of negligible artistic interest, but “Blue Skies” is a surprisingly engaging dance track by Brian Transeau (BT) to which Amos contributes vocals.
Amos is heavily represented on soundtracks and tribute albums. Her contributions include covers of R.E.M., Led Zeppelin and Leonard Cohen. Best to track down the soundtracks and tributes in the used bins, or buy the covers individually on iTunes.
Several years before her makeover as a sensitive alternative goddess, Amos recorded an excruciatingly bad album issued under the even worse moniker Y Kant Tori Read. Though marketed as a Vixenish rouge-and-hairspray metal babe, YKTR’s music is an artless plunder of mid-’80s commercial pop, from True Blue-period Madonna (“Cool on Your Island,” “Floating City”) to Paula Abdul (“Fayth”) and even sour hints of Heart and Bon Jovi. (One of the album’s two drummers is future Guns n’ Roses replacement Matt Sorum.) Aside from the relatively unscathed neo-Celtic balladry of “Etienne,” any hints of Amos’ piano-based approach (in the wailing chorus of “On the Boundary” and the intro to “Heart Attack at 23”) are ruthlessly swamped by slick synth riffs and studio-muso hackwork. Her voice and trite wordplay sound forced throughout; “Pirates” and an original titled “You Go to My Head” (“I’m such a lush for your love”) are particularly dumb. Although Tori’s own liner notes conspicuously thank an exec for “letting me make the record I wanted to make,” she later disowned the hapless album, blaming its utter commercial and artistic failure on “corporate pressures.”