Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Album project: Tori Amos

Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes (1992): Amos' solo debut (she recorded with Y Kant Tori Read, a forgettable pop-metal outfit, in the late 80's) is an impressive set of piano-based compositions mostly drawn from personal experiences. Singer-songwriter confessionals had mostly fallen out of favor by the early 90's. Little Earthquakes stood out at the time due to the honesty of Amos' songwriting, as well as her expressive singing and virtuoso piano skills, and helped spur a resurgence of female singer-songwriters that lasted through the rest of the decade. Tracks like "Silent All These Years" and "Winter" sparkle in fragile beauty, while Amos fearlessly takes on organized religion in "Crucify". Perhaps best of all is "Me And A Gun", a harrowing a capella account of Amos' rape that still sends chills up my spine whenever I hear it.

Some noted that the cover art for Little Earthquakes bore a resemblance to Kate Bush's The Kick Inside disc. One might consider Amos to be the American Kate Bush in a way, although Bush tends to experiment a bit more musically, and most Americans have never heard of Bush.

Tori Amos, Winter (1992): Marketed as a maxi-single, Winter's five songs take up over twenty minutes of running time and the disc might best be considered an EP. The title track appeared on Little Earthquakes. Atlantic Records originally rejected "Sweet Dreams", "Take To The Sky", and "Upside Down", which led to their release on Winter following the success of Little Earthquakes. "Upside Down" is another of Amos' confessionals, while "Sweet Dreams" and "Take To The Sky" remain two of her strongest rockers. When I want to hear Tori Amos, this is the disc I usually put on.

Amos still performs "Take To The Sky" in concert frequently; when she does, it's always a highlight of her show.

Tori Amos, Under The Pink (1994): The most accessible of Amos' albums, Under The Pink is the one to have if one is all you need. "God" and "Cornflake Girl" to this day remain among her best songs. The former is another poke at religion, featuring biting skepticism, and a challenge:

God sometimes you just don't come through
Do you need a woman to look after you

"Cornflake Girl" takes on the subject of female circumcision; Amos had read Alice Walker's Possessing The Secret Of Joy and was angered that mothers would force their daughters to take part in such a barbaric ritual.

The rest of Under The Pink displays the full range of Amos' songwriting talents, from the cabaret of "The Wrong Band" to the epic grandeur of "Yes, Anastasia". Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor guests on "Past The Mission", and Amos even revives her hard-rock chick persona on "The Waitress", barely able to conceal her jealous rage as she screams "But I believe in peace, bitch".

Over the years, Amos continues to dabble in a wide variety of musical styles while becoming more and more lyrically inscrutable. Her early releases provided her the financial means to become artistically independent, at which point she seems to have started releasing music to please herself without much regard to the audience, a trait shared by many successful singer-songwriters. That's all well and good - problem is, that's when they start to bore me, and as a result I haven't seen fit to purchase any of Amos' releases after Under The Pink. If her style is your thing, there's a lot of likable music on all of Amos' latterday releases. Some of the covers on Strange Little Girls and the harder rock sound of Scarlett's Walk are the most interesting to me. She's also a dynamic and highly entertaining live performer; with her own compositions and expansive range of cover versions, and a penchant for ribald stage humor, one truly never knows what to expect at a Tori Amos concert.