Yes, her angelic, operatic voice recalls Kate Bush (a fact that Tori won’t deny) and her lyrics, often dealing with religious or fantasy-based imagery, can be incomprehensible. Kate Bush has a great voice, and so does Tori, and she shares with Ms. Bush a willingness to experiment musically, though she’s not quite that far out there. In retrospect, this is by far her most conventional album, being a warm, incredibly intimate singer-songwriter collection that consists primarily of slow piano ballads. Her stellar piano work consistently sparkles, and this is also far and away her most lyrically direct album. That's a good thing, because personally I think that's when she’s at her best. Sexually explicit straight shooting such as “so you can make me cum, that doesn’t make you Jesus” and “yes I wore a slinky red thing, does that mean I should spread for you?” brought Tori a major cult following, especially among sensitive female types who sensed a kindred spirit in Ms. Amos. The a capella “Me And A Gun” devastatingly details a rape scenario that Tori obviously experienced, and she honestly declares that “everyday I crucify myself” while finally gathering the courage to come clean after keeping “Silent All These Years.” On the downside, the album is too long at a samey sounding 57 minutes, and Amos’ lyrics are occasionally banal, such as “so you found a girl who thinks really deep thoughts, what’s so amazing about really deep thoughts.” Still, this was a highly sensual, emotionally engaging debut album, and simply gorgeous songs such as “China” and “Winter” announced the emergence of a major new talent.
Under The Pink (Atlantic ’94) Rating: B+
More musically adventurous if a little less consistent than Little Earthquakes, the unexpected 15-second grunge interjection on the otherwise gorgeous “Pretty Good Year” demonstrates why Tori Amos is a truly “alternative” artist. The (also) overly long Under the Pink features several pretty ballads that again showcase Amos’ stunning piano skills, but the album also sees Amos stretching out with more varied tempos and instrumentation. For example, there’s the funky guitar and creaky percussion of the “blasphemous” “God,” the whimsical “The Wrong Band,” and the excellent all-over-the-place fable “Cornflake Girl,” a popular track but one which brought about more unflattering Kate Bush comparisons. But Tori’s sparse songs are more likely to feature just her and her lone piano; her songs are also more likely to be boring than Bush's, whose compositions are generally more fleshed out by comparison. Elsewhere, Trent Reznor’s mumbled vocals add a moody touch to the mysterious “Past The Mission,” but only on “Baker Baker,” the silly industrial rant “The Waitress,” and the masturbation obsessed “Icicle,” which also tackles religious hypocrisy (“Father says bow your head like the Good Book says, I think the Good Book is missing some pages”), does Amos come close to the lyrical directness of Little Earthquakes. This lyrical obtuseness can be frustrating, and though her free-flowing lyrics have played a major part in her cultivating a fanatical cult following, I for one would welcome more of the naked emotion that made Little Earthquakes so emotionally heart wrenching as well as musically satisfying.
Boys For Pele (Atlantic ’96) Rating: B+
Tori’s “difficult” third album again makes me pine for direct lyrics I can connect to, but though Boys For Pele is lyrically obtuse it's also musically adventurous and compelling. Although most of the album features Tori and her warm, classical piano, the album is also richly fleshed out with more instrumentation, with haunting harpsichords being particularly prominent. This mostly mellow album, a favorite among Tori followers, can work wonders as mere mood music (aside from an occasional shrillness), but it's also Amos’ most sonically audacious work to date. That said, this is hardly the place to start on Amos for beginners, as this somewhat formless 19-song collection is an acquired taste that needs to grow on you. After all, three of these songs are mere cute interludes (“Mr. Zebra,” “Way Down,” “Agent Orange”), and few of these songs are as immediately gripping or as accessible as the best tracks on her first two albums. Yet these feminine paeans will likely grow on you like they’ve grown on me, for despite her pretensions there are few '90s artists who are capable of crafting such a uniquely creative and boldly beautiful body of work. Just don’t try to read too much into what she’s trying to say and instead revel in her graceful imagery and rich musical soundscapes.
From The Choirgirl Hotel (Atlantic ’98) Rating: A-
Tori is becoming a more accomplished and versatile musician on each successive album, and as a result far fewer of her songs rely solely on her pretty piano playing and voice. From The Choirgirl Hotel sees full-bodied arrangements that are heavily reliant on propulsive percussion, and she even incorporates industrial and dance touches by virtue of some strange synthesizers. Lyrically, Tori remains rather obtuse, but the album offers more moments of clarity, with lines like “but she couldn’t keep baby alive” (about her recent miscarriage) and “you’ve got to know when it’s time to turn the page” being both moving and easy to relate to. She also admits “I can be cruel I don’t know why” and delivers a musically lush tribute to “Jackie’s Strength” (Onassis, that is). Musically, a song such as “Black-Dove (January)” offers both mystery and menace, while “Raspberry Swirl” is boosted by its creative production. Elsewhere, Tori longs for a repeat of that perfect one night stand in “Hotel,” while her “Playboy Mommy” chastises her for being so judgmental. Fans of her sparse piano and vocal arrangements will be satisfied by certain songs, but by and large Tori looks to expand her sound by opting for a more rocking format, the end result of which is most welcome by me.
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