Trailer (aka shameless plug): To celebrate the release of her new album Gold Dust, PopMatters will be presenting an exclusive week-long Performer Spotlight series on Tori Amos next month, edited by Matt Mazur and Joe Vallese and including some contributions from yours truly. Here’s my take on Gold Dust, in the meantime.
With Gold Dust, her second record for Deutsche Grammophon in just over a year, the metamorphosis of Tori Amos into a bona fide classical artiste continues apace. The ever-industrious Amos’s last album, Night of Hunters (2011) (which I swooned over, at length, here), was one of her finest achievements to date, a thrilling, immersive long night’s journey into day that riffed delicately and dynamically on a wide range of classical pieces to become its own entirely Amos-stamped entity, one involving personas and myths, a relationship on the rocks, and personal power lost and regained. By making her the first female artist to have a record in the Top 10 of Billboard’s Classical, Alternative and Rock charts simultaneously, the album elevated the genre-defying Amos to the place where she’s always, really, belonged, while the shows that she performed to accompany the album’s release - in the company of the brilliant Apollon Musagéte Quartett, aka the Polish Strings Posse - were entirely stunning.
The momentum generated by the awesomeness of Night of Hunters carries over to the release of Gold Dust, a record which, a whopping 20 years on from the release of Little Earthquakes, finds Amos in fittingly reflective mood, teaming with the Netherlands-based Metropole Orchestra to re-record fourteen of her songs in orchestral settings. The origins of the project lie in the one-off show that Amos played with the Metropole in October 2010, a concert that was well-received but that apparently left Amos herself a little disappointed. With the epic Night of Hunters under her belt, Amos evidently felt emboldened to tackle another classically-orientated project right off the bat. The results, though, are considerably more mixed.
“The 20 years is about celebrating different times that have happened - all the blessings, all the conversations which have taken place and inspired these songs,” Amos has stated. “My relationship with these all these songs has changed over the years and they have changed my life … [The project] wasn’t about capturing the past; it was about realizing that the songs had a new narrative - 10 or 20 years later than they did when I originally recorded them.” Certainly, the fourteen tracks make an admirable fist of covering a wide range of Amos voluminous catalogue, featuring tracks from all her pre-NOH albums minus Y Kant Tori Read (1987), To Venus and Back (1999), Strange Little Girls (2001) and The Beekeeper (2005). Notwithstanding, the first issue that one might take with Gold Dust is its choice of material. For, in the main, Amos and her long-time arranger John Philip Shenale have opted to include songs which already had strings as part of their original design: from Little Earthquakes’s “Winter,” to Under the Pink’s “Cloud on my Tongue” and “Yes, Anastasia” (presented here, disappointingly, in its shorter concert incarnation), through Boys for Pele’s “Marianne,” from the choirgirl hotel’s “Jackie’s Strength,” and Scarlet’s Walk’s “Gold Dust” to American Doll Posse's “Girl Disappearing” and “Programmable Soda.”
Sublime songs, every one - providers of solace, strength, inspiration and, even, for some of us, blog names - and it’s always good to hear them, but the bolder orchestration can’t be said to enhance them significantly here. The problem, I think, is that Amos and Shenale haven’t allowed themselves to colour far enough outside the lines of the original arrangements of any of these tracks, with the result that they simply sound all-too-similar to their previous incarnations. Tellingly, it’s the songs that didn’t have strings in their original DNA that benefit most from the orchestral treatment. A suitably cosmic opener, Abnormally Attracted to Sin’s “Flavor” is absolutely my favourite thing here, the track gaining a gorgeous, seductive sweep and swell in this rendering (just one regret: it no longer sounds like Amos is singing "Who's got Benny's God?" on the "Whose God then is God?" line). “Precious Things” also gains heft while retaining its cathartic thrill, through the superb marriage of the orchestra and Amos’s characteristically dynamic piano-playing (plus a nicely snarled “girrl” in the bridge).
Indeed, Amos is in fine voice and there are several striking touches scattered throughout the album ("Jackie's Strength," in particular has a fresh glitter, and dig those “circles and circles” in “Cloud on my Tongue”!). For the most part, though, she and Shenale seem content to play it safe on Gold Dust. Given how creative Amos has always been with her songs in a live setting, and how brilliantly her collaboration with Apollon Musagéte succeeded in reinvigorating her past work in concert last year, the tameness of the approach here is surprising. Remember Joni Mitchell’s extraordinary double-album Travelogue (2002), a benchmark for these pop-goes-the-orchestra endeavours, on which both Mitchell classics and songs you’d barely noticed on previous albums emerged freshly, as dynamic mini-opuses? Well, too few of the tracks on Gold Dust come off as dramatically enhanced or transformed, by comparison.
Presented with characteristic care, Gold Dust may prove to have more to offer the casual Amos fan than those who know her work intimately. If, in the last analysis, the album seems less essential than it might have done, it will, nonetheless, be interesting to discover which songs Amos chooses to supplement the record with in her upcoming live shows with the Metropole. And also to see whether those shows inspire her to deliver a second - perhaps more radical and risk-taking - showering of Gold Dust in the future. May I take the opportunity to humbly pitch in with a wish-list here: “Etienne,” “Caught A Lite Sneeze,” “Cruel,” “Black Dove (January),” “Liquid Diamonds,” “Merman,” “Never Seen Blue,” “Spring Haze,” “Carbon,” “Barons of Suburbia,” “Mother Revolution,” “The Beekeeper,” “Garlands,” and - get in! - “Datura.”
Gold Dust is released in the UK on October 1st.