The empowered pop of Tori Amos.
By Matt Ashare
MAY 4, 1998: The big story about from the choirgirl hotel (Atlantic), the new Tori Amos CD coming out on Tuesday, goes something like this: after the embarrassment of fronting the metal band Y Can't Tori Read back in '88, Amos launched a successful solo career by stripping her music down to voice and piano. But now she's feeling confident and comfortable enough to record and perform, as she did last week at Avalon (see sidebar), once again with a rock band, which may be the most exciting thing that's happened to women in rock since, I don't know, Jewel stopped yodeling. "I'd taken the 'girl with the piano' thing as far as I could," she told Billboard last month.
It is, for the most part, a true story: there are indeed rock guitars on from the choirgirl hotel, there is a band backing her on her current tour, and there's a line in one of her new songs ("Northern Lad") that goes "I guess you go too far/When pianos try to be guitars" and may or may not be a reference to Amos's habit of covering Aerosmith, Zeppelin, and Nirvana on piano. But the story may not be completely accurate. After all, when you're an artist of Amos's stature, hiring musicians isn't the same as forming a band. And I'm guessing that anyone familiar with her three previous solo albums on Atlantic isn't going to hear from the choirgirl hotel as much of a departure. So my story goes something like this . . .
Ground zero for Tori Amos was Little Earthquakes (Atlantic), her 1991 debut as a solo artist and a collection of tender melodramas that sexualized the chaste dream pop of Kate Bush so naturally, Y Can't Tori Read could only have been a set-up -- a staged disaster tailored to cast a tragic erotic shadow over Little Earthquakes. And the epicenter of Little Earthquakes was "Me and a Gun," a disarmingly intimate, chillingly literal slice of confessional songwriting in which Amos set a new gold standard for dark personal revelation in pop music by revealing the story of her own rape a cappella, thereby making Fiona Apple possible and Alanis Morissette probable. After all, what was a blowjob or two next to the sacrilege of a preacher's daughter openly discussing her own sexual assault and then singing a line like "So you can make me cum/That doesn't make you Jesus."
In the wake of Little Earthquakes, Amos secured for herself the role of empowered pop's reigning Trauma Queen, loved by many, loathed by some, but always, like The Jerry Springer Show today, the subject of strong opinions. Which is usually a sign that an artist is doing something right. (It's the mediocre platinum artists no one cares much about one way or the other who are killing music.)
Amos worked hard to maintain the high level of intimacy with the audience generated by Little Earthquakes, even as her music became colder, more complex, and more electronic and her lyrics grew increasingly fragmented and abstract on the two CDs that came next: 1994's Under the Pink, where her classically rooted piano rubbed shoulders with techno beats and Trent Reznor, and the almost impenetrably cryptic, self-produced 1996 disc Boys for Pele (both on Atlantic). The free associations of "Me and a Gun," then an artful device illustrating the effects of trauma, were taking over, and all of her tunes, even when the lyrics appeared to make no literal sense whatsoever, sounded traumatic, like some vaguely disturbing recovered fragment of memory. Amos didn't have much to hide behind as far as the music went -- mostly just piano, some orchestration, and a beat -- but good luck figuring out what a song like "Cornflake Girl" is about on your own (she says it's based on an Alice Walker book).
In this version of the story, which may not be true but certainly is accurate, from the choirgirl hotel isn't a wrinkle in the girl-with-piano plot but the next chapter in a saga that no longer has a coherent narrator. Profiled in a special "Women of Rock" issue of Rolling Stone last year, Amos seemed to suggest that she's a medium who channels songs: "The songs are alive in themselves . . . I'm only a conduit." Which is a far cry from the first-person autobiography of "Me and a Gun." Indeed, one of her new tunes is onomatopoetically titled "Iieee" and features such nonsense as "With your E's and your ease and I do one more/Need a lip gloss boost in your America." And yet from the choirgirl hotel, with its breathy vocals and stark atmospheres, sounds every bit as intimate and unguarded as Little Earthquakes, in part because you can almost hear the saliva swishing around Amos's molars on a couple of the quieter, girl-with-piano tracks (the tense intro to "Black Dove," the jazzy "Pandora's Aquarium").
As advertised, the disc opens with steely guitar arpeggios taking the place of piano on "Spark" (also the first single), which uses a nicotine patch as its creepy central image ("She's addicted to nicotine patches"), suggesting the theme of chemical dependence. Another salient line is "You say you don't want it again and again but you don't really mean it." Of course, there's no way to be sure what a sensual Delphic reverie like "Spark" is really about: if the tricky time signature doesn't throw you off balance, then elliptical lyrics like "If the divine master plan is perfection maybe next I'll give Judas a try/Trusting my soul to the ice-cream assassin" will surely do the trick.
Other than enhancing the textural palette of "Spark," the band (guitarists Steve Caton and Stewart Boyle, drummer Matt Chamberlain, bassists Justin Meldal-Johnsen and George Porter Jr., and programmer Andy Gray) have no essential role once Amos's ornate piano (think Emerson, Lake & Palmer) enters the mix. Unlike most of the other women of Lilith, Amos doesn't really need the boys in the band to put her songs across. More than anything, the increased presence of guitar-bass-drums instrumentation on from the choirgirl hotel helps curb her tendency to overplay. But the piano-less "Cruel," an eerie technofied number with an abraded synthetic bass line slithering underneath flowing synth drones (or are those treated cellos?), looped beats, and exotic marimba percussion, is proof that a good programmer can also be very effective in that regard.
Amos doesn't eschew autobiography any more than she abandons the piano. It's linear narratives she's come to disdain. Looking over the lyric sheet you can see that "Jackie's Strength" is Amos's "Candle in the Wind" to the late Jackie Kennedy, as maudlin and grandiose as the Elton John elegy, but shot through with the kind of fragmentary personal recollections that Bernie Taupin would never allow. There's no context in the song for scenarios like "Stickers licked on lunchboxes worshipping David Cassidy/Yeah I mooned him once on Donna's box," or "Sleepovers Beene's got some pot/You're only popular with anorexia so I turn myself inside out in hope someone will see," or "Feeling old by 21/Never thought my day would come/My bridesmaids getting laid I pray for Jackie's strength." So you're left wondering: is she saying she was anorectic? A David Cassidy fan? This is the kind of song Amos does best, a disjointed collage of pop-cultural references, sex, drugs, and talk-show topics littered revealingly among supple piano chords like bras, lipsticks, fashion magazines, empty packs of Marlboro Lights, panties, rolling papers, and designer dresses strewn haphazardly around the bedroom of a woman you just met. The individual details don't yield much on their own, but taken in as a whole the scene suggests a lot.
The music of from the choirgirl hotel is a bit of a mess too. The sexually suggestive and teasing "Raspberry Swirl" ("If you want inside her well, boy you better make her raspberry swirl") is set to a pumping house beat that's aching to be remixed for the dance floor by someone of Frankie Knuckles' stature in the club world. "Iieee," with its twangy Ennio Morricone guitar, soundtracky strings, and sluggish techno beat, is trip-hop of the Portishead variety with a noisy industrial-lite Sneaker Pimps midsection. And brushed acoustic drums, pedal steel, and what sounds like an accordion set the spare backdrop for the prickly tenderness of "Playboy Mommy." But like mid-'70s Elton John, Amos has the vocal idiosyncrasies -- the style, that is -- to pull it all together. Besides, she can afford a little genre dabbling, if only to help keep her from falling into any one routine she may have learned in piano class.
from the choirgirl hotel ends, at least in terms of instrumentation, where Amos began the decade, both hands on the keyboard, her voice sweetly swooping up with quiet strength to put a nightmarish edge on Kate Bush dreams, her quiet strength anchoring the airy mix. She sings it as if she were uncovering some soul-deep wound, inviting you in on a painful secret. It's a formula that has made her one of the models for the '90s Lilith girl, the confessional singer/songwriter, damaged but not undone. But the real triumph of the song and of from the choirgirl hotel is that Amos has set herself free from the need to confess. "I'm not Persephone," she sings, as if to clear up some unexplained misunderstanding. "She's in New York somewhere checking her accounts." It's the song's most lucid line, and it reveals not one actual fact about the real Tori Amos.
Tori liveTori Amos's performances are usually more like séances -- the pale girl at her baby grand conjuring up ghosts in screams and sighs and whispers and slippery solo piano streaks. And though her current warm-up mini-tour (which hit Avalon last Saturday), her first with a full band, didn't forsake any of the intimacy she's known for, it was still a subtle retreat from the spotlight. Augmented by guitarist Steve Caton (who's been with her since her mid-'80s hair-metal days), bassist Jon Evans, and drummer Matt Chamberlain, Amos (playing piano and keyboards back-to-back) was occasionally overwhelmed by her collaborators: Caton showered power chords upon Little Earthquake's "Precious Things" and indulged a cheese-metal solo on Boys for Pele's "Doughnut Song," and the rhythm section perhaps overstated the electronic big-beat rhythms on from the choirgirl hotel's "Iieee." But more often the band fulfilled the promise of new dimensions -- allowing Amos to flex more dramatic, rocking muscles on choirgirl's "Cruel" (propelled by a scuzz-crusted bass line worthy of Tool and a chorus that'd make Garbage blush), or shading both new and old material with tempered gradations of elegance, melancholy, and exuberance. The band provided a heavier sonic partner for her voice to spar with, but it was also a place for her to hide, to emerge from unexpectedly.
The 17-song set -- drawing heavily on songs from choirgirl -- often seemed like a fan-club meeting. Although the show sold out within minutes weeks ago, Toriphiles were reportedly lining up at Avalon as early as 5 a.m. in order to secure the general-admission floorspace closest to their idol. "So this is our time together," Amos said casually as she sent the band away for a mid-set solo interlude, apologizing in advance in case she forgot the lyrics to her old songs. Halfway through a goosebump-raising "Baker Baker" she paused to console a front-row fan reduced to tears: "Oh, baby, that's okay. We're all screwed up."
And that was the vibe -- gentle consolation, with a touch of wry self-mockery. Introducing one of choirgirl's highlights, "Jackie's Strength," the recently-married Amos said, "I wrote this one about a girl getting lost on her wedding day. Wonder who that would be -- duh." Nor did the crowd need to be reminded of her much-publicized 1996 miscarriage to catch the allusions in choirgirl's first single, "Spark": "She's convinced she could hold back a glacier/But she couldn't keep baby alive." Rendered with chilly reverb and wisps of acid feedback, "Spark" (as an encore) and the set's opener, "Black Dove (January)," were highlights, evoking a kind of trip-hop cabaret with creepy hues and menacing allusions, and Amos's voice slithering through like the tendrils of a spider plant.
-- Carly Carioli
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