Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Overexposed

Concert reveals two women in a creative rut

By Michael McCall

AUGUST 30, 1999:  Alanis Morissette and Tori Amos represent the commercial vanguard of a specific kind of '90s rock. They both write frank, explicitly detailed, purposely provocative songs that draw on personal experience to raise important social issues, especially for women. Moreover, they take the self-confession of acoustic singer-songwriters and pump it with hard-rock bravado.

Listening to them in concert recently, it was possible to admire their nerviness, their willingness to explore difficult truths about modern life, and their total lack of inhibition. It was also easy to conclude that they could be crafting better songs.

This seems particularly true at this point in both women's careers. Both Amos and Morissette broke through with debut albums that boldly confronted the ways in which our culture exploits women sexually and emotionally. But their recent work suffers from lyrical self-indulgence and increasingly plodding music. After potent, if uneven, starts, they've quickly devolved into relying on the worst aspects of their songcraft. For Amos, that means ornate, symphonically derived piano pop that has slipped from dynamic and volatile to predictable and indecipherable. For Morissette, it means her harshly textured guitar rock has gone from fierce and punchy to rambling and repetitive.

Even if Morissette's band nicely accented the Indian influences and the swirling, exotic nature of the songs on her recent album, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, it couldn't overcome how meaningless and shallow the psychobabble of her lyrics has become. Her 30-million-selling breakthrough, Jagged Little Pill, may have been clumsy in parts, but at least it hit a potent nerve in how it purged emotions about the betrayal of past lovers and the manipulation that runs rampant in a patriarchal culture.

The new album, with no worthy target to shoot down, instead turns self-discovery and spirituality into an endless string of trite, poorly written journal entries that have little shape or melodic form. Certainly, it's Morissette who's stumbled the furthest the fastest--and "stumbled" is the right word, considering her puzzling stage demeanor. During each song, she paced to the front of one side of the stage, quickly turned and retreated to the front of the drum set, then shifted and moved toward the other corner of the stage. It was back and forth, back and forth all night long, with her steps sort of a mock stumble rather than a stride. She looked as if she were crossing the desert and barely able to maintain the strength to walk.

Occasionally, she broke into a whirling dervish of a dance, spinning and stomping to portray a particularly explosive release of emotion. That was fine; it gave the crowd a rare reason to share in the performance. By all means, her dancing was preferable to her instrumental forays: Her tuneless wheezing on harmonica, including a short but painful freeform jam that closed "Hand in My Pocket," was topped only by her gaseous venting of air through a flute on the new "That I Would Be Good," damaging a prayerful ballad that should have provided one of the night's few sweetly memorable moments. She also had the annoying habit of starting each stanza in a conversational tone, then ending it by raising her voice to a wail on the final few words of the verse.

Alanis Morissette

From her inscrutable lyrics to her unnecessary instrumental solos to her erratic performance style, Morissette seemed hell-bent on testing the loyalty of those who championed her first album. Four years after creating one of the best-selling LPs of all-time, she played to a less-than-stellar crowd that responded with the least amount of enthusiasm likely to greet a big-name rock star in Nashville this year. Maybe Morissette's self-examination needs to turn from her personal life to her professional one.

For Amos, the problems weren't quite as malignant. Nonetheless, her performance paled when compared to the gut-wrenching shows she put on in years past at smaller venues. Her talent remains obvious, if histrionic. She owns a wildly expressive voice that she wields with power and great control, and she is an accomplished pianist, even if her recent work has become overly effusive and less effective than on earlier records.

Her problem these days is that she has failed to find intriguing subjects and new musical territory after making a name with candidly confessional songs about her own sexual assault, about genital mutilation, about her struggles with Christianity, and about domineering men in her life. Her recent work still can provoke--1998's From the Choirgirl Hotel includes songs in which she reprimands God and announces her preference for masturbation over communion. But it lacks the surprise and the personal revelation she displayed on earlier albums.

Tori Amos

For new material, Amos is relying more on convoluted songs about spirits and fairies that come across as strained rather than fanciful, and her increased use of electronic percussion and sound effects feels stiff and uninspired, a far cry from the modern innovations of Portishead, PJ Harvey, and Massive Attack--artists she is no doubt trying to emulate. Now performing live with a band instead of solo, she has lost the intimate connection with audiences that made her seem so bold in the past.

The lack of interesting melodic structure in her own songs was exposed when she offered a moody version of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide." Amid the clanking tedium that overwhelmed the rest of her show, this one flash of melodic revelation freshened the air.

Indeed, the contrast between the inventive yet carefully designed "Landslide" and the formless arrangements that consumed the rest of the evening provided a lesson that both Amos and Morissette could benefit from--if they'd pay attention. They've purged their souls, and they've enjoyed the rush of freedom that comes from letting their creative impulses run asunder. Now they should rearm themselves with the power that true songcraft can bring to a deeply felt emotion.

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