Tuesday 30 August 2011

Film Review: The Skin I Live In (Almodóvar, 2011)

Following the intriguing but finally confused (and slightly smug) Broken Embraces (2009), a film that never quite added up to the sum to its parts, for me, everyone’s favourite Spanish provocateur returns with The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)  (2011), his 18th feature. I approached The Skin I Live In with a certain amount of trepidation, especially since a friend of mine described it as “a new low for Almodóvar.” It’s true that the new film falls into some of the same traps as Broken Embraces, notably an excess of plotting and "back-story," and a rather wearying tendency toward self-plagiarism. And yet this elegantly lurid horror/comedy exerts a fascination. It’s Almodóvar’s craziest work in some time and one that sometimes touches the erratic gaudy splendours of Átame! (1990) or High Heels (1991).

Adapted very freely from the late French crime novelist Thierry Jonquet’s 1984 novella Tarantula, The Skin I Live In mashes up elements of all kinds of “mad scientist” texts (from Frankenstein to Franju’s classic Eyes Without A Face [1959]) to tell the story of Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), an eminent plastic surgeon who is holding captive a young woman named Vera (Elena Anaya) in his palatial mansion on the outskirts of Toledo. In a lengthy series of flashbacks, the nature of Robert and Vera’s history gradually becomes clear.

The film’s manic mixing of moods as it swerves between farce and thriller, sci-fi, noir, horror and melodrama is more skilfully achieved than it was in Broken Embraces in which the shifts between genres proved jarring. Here, helped along by some particularly deft work from his regular collaborators (Alberto Iglesias’s score is especially luscious) Almodóvar once again proves himself a master of the sustained set-piece and, against all odds, the film even wins its way through to emotion in a couple of scenes.

The tactility of the film also seems likely to inspire a raft of essays on haptic visuality in Almodóvar, or at least a chapter in a new edition of Laura Marks’s wonderful The Skin of the Film. (In Broken Embraces, a TV screen featuring an image of a lost object of desire was carressed; here a screen gets licked.) Indeed, it’s television that provides the salvation for one character, in the film’s most emotionally affecting sequence.

The cast do well. Reuniting with the director for the first time since Átame! Banderas gives a well-controlled and menacing performance. Anaya (in a role originally intended for Penélope Cruz) combines sensuality, vulnerability and steely resolve to compelling effect, and it’s a special delight to see Marisa Paredes on screen again, bringing inimitable gravitas and “morbo” to her role as Robert’s housekeeper. Playing her son, Roberto Álamo strides into the film - hilariously - in a tiger costume, only to become the protagonist of the most outrageous and disturbing sequence here, a riff on the notorious “comic” rape scene in Kika (1993).

Like Broken Embraces, The Skin I Live In gets sillier the more you think about it, and there is, finally, a hollow quality to its sensational revelations (especially its central one) that makes it seem increasingly unlikely that we’ll ever get a work of the depth and beauty of, say, Talk to Her (2002) from Almodóvar again. Still, scene by scene the picture holds the attention. It's bad fun if you’re in the right frame of mind, proof that this director’s movie-struck universe is still a diverting place to live in, every once in a while.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

CD Review: Night of Hunters (2011) by Tori Amos

Although her apparently self-imposed biannual schedule for album releases meant that a new record was “due” from her this year, the prospect of a 2011 release from Tori Amos seemed rather unlikely. Following her highly productive 2009, in which she put out both Abnormally Attracted to Sin and the Christmas (sorry, Solstice) album Midwinter Graces, Amos has continued her long-standing collaboration on The Light Princess with Samuel Adamson, and the musical is finally set to open at the National Theatre next year. So the news of Night of Hunters, a new solo record from her, came as something of a surprise, even taking into account Amos’s enviable work ethic and the fact that she’s an artist who seems to find more hours in the day than most of us

Given her other commitments, it might have been anticipated that the new album would be a pared-down affair, one that curtailed Amos’s penchant for ambitious, large-scale projects. But if we know anything about Amos by now it’s that she’s not an artist who does things by halves. And so it was not entirely surprising to learn that Night of Hunters would be, in her words, “a 21st century song cycle inspired by classical music themes spanning over 400 years … to tell an ongoing, modern story … [and] explore complex musical and emotional subject matter.” Oh, right, just that.

The project arose when Amos was approached by the Deutsche Grammophon label to produce a classical work, and it’s a challenge that she’s responded to with her customary zeal, whole-heartedness and attention to detail. Classical components have often surfaced in her music, of course, but Night of Hunters is her first album recorded through entirely acoustic means. Dispensing (temporarily, one assumes) with her regular band-mates, Amos has recruited a select group of musicians to collaborate with her on this venture: the celebrated Polish String Posse Apollon Musagéte and five woodwind instrumentalists - clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer, oboist Nigel Shore, flautist Laura Lucas, bassoonist Peter Whelan and contrabassoonist Luke Whitehead -with arrangements overseen by her long-time collaborator John Philip Shenale. And drawing on the venerable tradition of “variations on a theme,” Amos has incorporated pieces by favoured composers including Bach, Schubert, Granados and Satie into the work.

The resulting album feels entirely fresh but also of-a-piece with several recent Amos projects, notably her well-received concert with the Metropole Orchestra last October, and Midwinter Graces itself, an album which similarly tinkered with “found” texts, adapting and amalgamating classic carols. The sense of continuity between the two records is further reinforced by the reappearances of Amos’s daughter, Natashya, and niece, Kelsey Dobyns, on vocals here.

Listeners who’ve deemed Amos’s recent albums to be too “busy” and unfocused, marred by a surfeit of songs and styles, will find Night of Hunters to be her most cohesive and consistent album in years. Those concerned that “consistency” (especially of a “classical” nature) might equal boredom should be very pleasantly surprised by an album which, while lacking the playfulness that was once such a distinctive feature of Amos’s output, still exhibits her unerring ability to shift compellingly through contrasting emotions and moods.

Indeed, the exclusively acoustic context seems to have fired Amos up as an instrumentalist, since Night of Hunters features some of her most expressive and dynamic piano-playing (on record, at least) in some time. The arresting opening track, “Shattering Sea,” is a case in point, shifting from bruised low piano chords into a dramatic, Bernard Herrmann-esque frenzy of strings, woodwind and furious arpeggios as Amos intones the killer opening line: “That is not my blood on the bedroom floor.” Always a keen anatomist of relationship conflict, Amos here deposits the listener right into the thick of it, the track’s turbulence brilliantly evoking the emotional fallout of “every brutal word” uttered by a couple in crisis. Key themes and issues are established here - blame, self-betrayal, denial, the power of language - on an album on which Amos’s imagery tends mainly towards the elemental. Her previous songs have sometimes sought answers and analogues to human dilemmas in the contemplation of the cosmos, and Night of Hunters is a work of moons and suns, tides and waves, dusks and dawns, fires, skies and storms, an album on which the earthly and the ethereal are held in compelling balance. Throughout, the music breathes and builds, ebbs and flows, and Shenale’s expert arrangements convey intense intimacy and wide-screen expansiveness as required.

The frontal attack of “Shattering Sea” is followed by the rumbling, pensive, rather Antony-esque “SnowBlind,” a track which marks the first appearance of Amos’s daughter, Natashya, whose Adele-meets-Joanna-Newsom vocal contributions prove to be surprisingly effective. In the record’s rather diffuse narrative, Amos casts Natashya as “Anabelle,” a voice of wisdom and guidance. Thus Natashya’s three other appearances also function as turning points in the album’s arc, whether she’s encouraging our heroine to partake of the eponymous elixir in “Cactus Practice” or singing a riddling ode to adaptability on the brisk shape-shifter’s anthem “The Chase.” The slightly quaint “Cactus Practice” seems likely to be the song that draws the most opprobrium from the ever-vocal brigade of Toriphiles-turned-Toriphobes, but it’s an intriguing piece on which crisp piano lines and burbling woodwind provide an alluring setting to a subtly rebellious tale of “harmonic defiance.”

But the album’s emotional crux comes with the third song to feature Natashya, “Job’s Coffin,” a simply beautiful rallying-cry to claim one’s own sovereignty that’s infused with disarming warmth and a little gospel spirit. The notion of an 11-year-old singing lines like “There is a grid of disempowerment” may seem impossibly precious, but the young Miss Hawley pulls it off with total conviction, and “Job’s Coffin” takes its place as Night of Hunters’ most instantly accessible and stirring track.

The longest pieces here also sustain momentum and drive, however, and the spellbinding, 9-minute “Battle of Trees,” all pizzicato strings, sawing cello and undulating piano, is a standout, its lyrics turning the clock back a few thousand years to present our central couple as poet-warriors fighting on the same side in an epic war of words. The song’s imagery marks it out as a companion piece of sorts to the great original Midwinter Graces track “Winter’s Carol,” and once we reach the line about the Church beginning to “twist the old myths” we know that we could be in the company of no other artist but Amos.

An intoxicating, fluid chamber intensity is sustained on tracks such as the sensational “Fearlessness” and the elegant “Nautical Twilight,” a beautifully structured piece that takes the listener from dusk to dawn, and its narrator into a pivotal realisation. Spinning off of Schubert’s Sonata No. 20, “Star Whisperer” opens slowly, with a lugubrious vocal from Amos, but then ducks into a thrilling instrumental movement that features truly exceptional work from all of the players. Similarly intricate in its arrangement is the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”-referencing “Edge of the Moon” whose stately, restrained beginning gives way to a buoyant mid-section that The Beatles would’ve been proud to call their own. The mellifluous “Your Ghost” (on which Amos again pays lyrical homage to her favourite Liverpudlians) is soothing and conciliatory, and Amos’s delivery of the final verse is especially exquisite. Reigning in some of the cutesy affectations that marred some of her performances on Midwinter Graces she’s in good, supple voice throughout the record, her vocals entirely sensitive to the complexities and nuances of the music.

The title track, a vibrant duet for Amos and Dobyns that sounds like a lost outtake from Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, riffs rather brilliantly on Charles Laughton’s 1955 chiller The Night of the Hunter, with “dark forces” out “to invade children’s dreams” challenged by a potent female energy. “Seven Sisters” is a lovely, twinkling instrumental duet for Amos and Ottensamer, while the closing “Carry” is one of those expansive, gracious, valedictory Amos ballads (think “1000 Oceans” via “Gold Dust” via “Toast”) that we’ve almost come to take for granted over the years. Whether the song really succeeds in bringing together the album’s complicated narrative strands is debatable, but when a finale is as heart-stoppingly beautiful as this one is it seems merely churlish to complain.

Despite their many successful and disarming moments, Amos’s recent albums have occasionally felt contrived in their effects but there’s a natural, organic quality to her work on Night of Hunters that is extremely gratifying to experience. Bracingly unfashionable, it’s an album that finds Amos operating on instinct once more, and building on the work of past masters to develop an utterly distinctive vision of her own. The result is a rich, immersive, timeless record of beauty, danger and grace, and one that ranks as one of Amos’s finest achievements to date.

Reviewed for Wears the Trousers.

Friday 19 August 2011

Piecing A Potion: The Music of Tori Amos

If faced with the challenge of compiling an Artists I Couldn’t Live Without List, then Tori Amos would be one of the head-liners. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that Amos’s work has had a greater impact on my life, emotionally, creatively, spiritually and psychologically, than that of any other musician. (This blog’s title is but one nod to this.) Simply put, her albums have changed what I expect music to do for me. How well I remember hearing Little Earthquakes for the first time in January 1998 … following it up with Under the Pink then Boys for Pele … Feelings stirring, changes, epiphanies, starting to see the world differently, the beginning of something new … As for so many listeners, I guess that what initially drew me to Amos’s music was a pure, unadulterated emotional connection. Certainly, I’d never heard anyone explore such feelings and experiences in song before, with so much insight and poetry and musical sophistication. I was immediately captivated by her voice and her song-writing, by the mix of influences in her work, and the way she transforms them into something totally fresh, by the contradictory moods and emotions she can sustain, and the exhilarating shifts of feeling which seem to convey all the complexities of human experience. 13 years on, her music continues to take me to places that other people’s can’t quite reach.

Amos’s status as one of contemporary music’s hardest-working, most conscientious creators has been fully confirmed over the years, with 2009 alone seeing the release of not one but two new albums from her, as well as the completion of another Odyssean tour. Ever one to challenge stereotypes, Amos has ceremoniously given the finger to the received wisdom about the effect of “the pram in the hall” on art-creation. Motherhood and marriage have only served to increase, not inhibit, her productivity, her seemingly insatiable drive to create. In the process, she’s left many fans and critics playing catch-up

It’s been 13 years now since she and her engineer/husband Mark Hawley set up their home-studio in Cornwall, and in that time Amos has issued 8 studio albums (4 of them consisting of 18 tracks or more), a Best Of collection, and a massive box-set (piano-shaped, natch). She’s undertaken extensive world tours every other year (with ever-changing set-lists, improvs and nary a cancel), produced “official” bootlegs from two of those tours, and overseen many other projects, including the publication of her idiosyncratic autobiography Piece by Piece and the mammoth Comic Book Tattoo anthology. Meanwhile, she’s weathered record-company spats and has continued to collaborate on her first musical, an adaptation of George MacDonald’s The Light Princess due to open at the National Theatre next Spring. (Interview with Sam Adamson here.) Never one to rest on her laurels, Amos, at 48, remains a musical (tour de)force, an artist whose ambition and sense of adventure still eclipses that of many musicians half her age.

Despite this, it can’t really be said that Amos’s reputation is in its healthiest state right now.She remains an undisputed icon to many, of course, an artist whose music is often described as life-changing, and she can still pull in rapt and reverent audiences from Anaheim to Zabrze. At the same time, her music has suffered something of a backlash in recent years. In particular, the lengthy concept albums that have constituted the bulk of her 21st century output have divided opinion, testing the patience of her admirers and leading to accusations of self-indulgence. While such criticisms are not entirely without foundation, the casual dismissal and sometimes shallow soundbite responses that her recent work has received indicate that much of it has not been given a fair hearing. Fiercely committed to the album as art-form and refusing to curtail her work to cater to the short attention span encouraged by the pick-and-mix iTunes era, Amos has suffered the consequences, both commercially and critically. For many commentators, it’s only her 90s output that defines her, a collection of albums that, in their invigorating mixture of frankness and abstraction, substantially rewrote the singer-songwriter rule-book, and demonstrated that a red-head and a piano could generate as much emotion, insight and intensity as any number of guys with guitars.

But, as with most artists who are in it for the long haul, much of what Amos has been up to since remains equally vital, exciting and worthy of attention. And so with the release of her eagerly anticipated new album, Night of Hunters, imminent [review here], now seems an apt moment to take a wander through Amos’s voluminous catalogue, to (re)assess what’s worked and what hasn’t, and to celebrate some of her achievements, which, frankly, could use a little celebrating these days. Click on the highlighted titles for links to the more obscure tracks referenced.


Little Earthquakes (1992)
Amos’s seminal solo debut album has become a classic coming-of-age record for many, many people. Arriving at the apex of grunge, when the “girl-and-piano” thing was deemed to be “played out,” Amos delivered a harrowing and healing set of songs that drew on the established singer-songwriter tradition while also taking it forward. Whisking the listener from rage to calm resolve, trauma to tenderness, Little Earthquakes made good on its title, conveying emotional turbulence through Amos’s expressive, quicksilver vocal delivery, her keyboard dexterity and profound, deeply textured lyrics. Full of questions, the album’s songs including “Crucify,” “Silent All These Years,” “Precious Things,” “Winter” and “Me And A Gun” offer clues (sometimes cryptic and sometimes clear) to the problems they raise, inspiring and energising the listener. Forget those facile Kate Bush comparisons: the cutting analyses of religious guilt, relationship conflict and emotional and physical violence on Little Earthquakes have little in common with the soft-core tone of an album such as The Kick Inside, on which even brother/sister incest is presented as the height of Romance. But humour and hope are fully present on Little Earthquakes; indeed, it’s precisely Amos’s ability to convey her characters’ struggles with biting wit and humour as well as insight and anger that makes the album such a visceral experience. In production-terms, the record may appear a little dated now. But the power of the performances is such that, 20 years on, Little Earthquakes has lost none of its ability to disturb, enlighten and empower.

Under The Pink (1994)
For all its stylistic quirks and flourishes - the twitchy electric guitarwork in “God,” the jazz and reggae-influenced gait of the immortal “Cornflake Girl,” the thrilling grungy bridge that erupts in “Pretty Good Year” - Amos’s second album feels like her most classical work. Now delicate, now playful, now thunderous and dramatic, her superb piano-playing perfectly matches Pink’s abstract narrative fragments and startling lyrical images. Far from Little Earthquakes II, the album, recorded in New Mexico, took Amos in all kinds of exciting new directions. Thematically, issues of female oppression and betrayal were to the fore, viewed from both a historical and a contemporary vantage. Delving “under the pink,” Amos emerged with tales such as the mysterious murder narrative “Past the Mission” (complete with Trent Reznor backing vocals), “Icicle”’s paean to masturbation, and the femicide-fantasy “The Waitress,” the refrain of which - “I believe in peace, bitch” - sums up the album’s riveting ambivalences. The most extraordinary track, though, is perhaps the closing “Yes, Anastasia,” a sweeping piano-and-strings epic that brilliantly mixes tempos and moods before arriving at a coda that chills the blood. “We’ll see how brave you are,” indeed.

from the choirgirl hotel (1998)
from the choirgirl hotel represents a significant turning point in Amos’s career. It’s the first album recorded at the home studio, and the first with drummer Matt Chamberlain on board, a collaboration that has nourished her live and recorded music ever since. Amos challenged herself to use rhythm in a different way across choirgirl, broadening her sound to encompass modern technology and recording with a live band rather than adding other instruments subsequently. “The piano was excited,” Amos confirmed. “She didn’t have to masturbate for the first time in a long time.” Listeners were excited, too. The opposite of a sterile dance record, for all its state-of-the-art technological sheen, choirgirl proved to be a soulful, emotional work that confronted issues of loss, grief, guilt and survival in a compelling, spiritual way. Throughout, however, the bleakness of some of its subject matter is offset by funky rhythms and riffs and by alluring melodies that keep the listener off balance but also welcome them in. choirgirl’s mature, confident and sensual sound is both staggeringly diverse and remarkably cohesive, with sublime transitions. The orgasmic clamour of “Raspberry Swirl” (a Sapphic spin on Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” that cemented Amos’s unexpected transformation into dance-floor diva) gives way to the moving (and funny) ballad “Jackie’s Strength,” the despair of the tribal-techno “iieee” morphs into the soothing, jazzy groove of “Liquid Diamonds,” while the aching “Northern Lad” segues into the synthesizer turbulence of “Hotel.” A magnificent album that has only grown in statue as the years have passed. Put it on today. Turn it up. Check in.

Scarlet’s Walk (2002)
Amos could not have made her label-move to Epic with a more appropriate release. Scarlet’s Walk is epic, an 18-track journey across a country - geographically, metaphorically and spiritually. “Let me tell you something about living in America,” Amos sang on “Pretty Good Year,” and, eight years later, Scarlet’s Walk made good on that promise. Amos’s US of A is both imaginative and geographic space, and “Scarlet’s walk” is a road on which the personal and the political, the historical and the contemporary, dynamically intersect. Disillusioned porn stars, 9/11, the Native American injustice, ruptured and healing relationships, the Mexico/North America conflict, it’s all here on this uncommonly rich, unavoidably political, and hauntingly beautiful work. Musically, the album’s inviting, measured tone fooled some into thinking that Amos had mellowed; closer attention revealed that her lyrical scalpel was still slicing sharply, condensing piercing insights - “seems in vogue to be a closet/misogynist homophobe,” “even a glamorous bitch can be in need,” “messiahs need people dying in their name” - into memorable aphorisms that skewered some of the madnesses of the age. Throughout, Amos gives voice to the experiences of the culture’s “others”; the stunning title track demands that - and shows how - these voices will be heard. If Springsteen, Dylan or Young had made this record it would be considered, widely, a masterpiece. But in a world of fame “academies” and instant pop “idols” it’s still a small but heartening miracle that popular music of this complexity and artistry is still out there, being made.


Boys For Pele (1996)
The trippiest, wildest record in the Amos canon (and also her first solo production job), Boys For Pele took the break-up album into previously uncharted terror-Tori of myth, madness and magnificence. Demonic harpsichord and protean piano, a gospel choir, Delgany church bells, Manu Katche’s drumming and The Black Dyke Mills Band, coupled with some brilliantly bizarre free-association lyrics and seriously strung-out vocals, resulted in Amos’s rawest and most ferocious record, albeit one that made space for lyricism, tenderness and humour. Lyrically, the album found Amos running to icons of history, religion and popular culture (everyone from Lucifer, Moses and Mohammad to Anne Boleyn, Angie Dickinson, Miss Moneypenny, Big Bird, Mr. Sulu and Superfly) in an effort to make sense of her experiences, placing her bracing, fierce patriarchy-critique within a mythic/historical framework that was also a Southern Gothic dreamscape - a motif developed on the album’s infamous liner art. The record’s lyrical allusions were matched by a brace of musical quotations - spot nods to “Come Together,” “Purple Rain” and “When The Levee Breaks” - though the overall effect was utterly distinctive and unique. Named for the Hawaiian volcano goddess who demanded the ritual sacrifice of young males, Pele is a brutal and beautiful fever dream of a record that boldly confronts violent impulses. But as so often with Amos, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. By the closing track, “Twinkle,” our heroine has found a productive way to burn.


To Venus And Back (1999)
Following in the electro-rock footsteps of from the choirgirl hotel, To Venus And Back was a lesser album than its immediate predecessor but one that nonetheless offered some indelible songs. The elegant electronics of “Bliss,” the pounding “Juárez,” the utterly delicious “Glory of the 80s” (those lyrics!) and the monumental “Dãtura” all testified to Amos’s drive to experiment. Meanwhile, the second disc pulled performances from her thunderous “Plugged” tour of ’98, including harsh, intense takes on “Precious Things,” “Cruel” and “The Waitress.”

Strange Little Girls (2001)
From Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” through Chas & Dave’s “London Girls” to Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” reinterpretations of others’ songs have always occupied an important place in Amos’s repertoire. With Strange Little Girls, however, Amos approached the covers album as concept album, offering reinterpretations of 12 male-authored tracks from the perspectives of an assortment of female characters, developed in collaboration with Neil Gaiman. Inspired by the homophobic and misogynistic messages which Amos felt were prevalent in popular song at the beginning of the 21st century, the album’s concept resonated with the work of second-wave feminists who critiqued male representations of women and descriptions of sexual violence in contemporary literature. The innovation of SLG was to extend this debate into the realm of rock, and to recognise mainstream music as one of the primary cultural spheres in which gender roles get played out and patriarchal ideology disseminated. As well as her interpretive gifts (and the album boasts some of her most commanding singing), Amos applied her genius for sequencing to the album, opening with the dawning of a “New Age” (a startling take on a neglected Lou Reed song) and closing with the fusion of anima and animus on Joe Jackson’s “Real Men.” In between, a chilling rendition of Eminem’s “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” (recast here as a ghostly mother-to-daughter message), beautiful versions of Lloyd Cole’s “Rattlesnakes” and Tom Waits’s “Time,” and a squally reinvention of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” were among the album’s highlights. Not all of it works: a creepy-crawly take on 10CC’s “I’m Not In Love” fails to ignite, while an ambitious reading of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” is a good idea that falters in execution. But, supplemented by Gaiman’s “Portraits of Girls” narratives and some Cindy Sherman-inspired liner photography, SLG is a rewarding and subversive work that boldly challenges the listener to reassess their relationship to these songs.

The Beekeeper (2005)
Yes, it’s overlong. Yes, the concepts (the Gnostic gospels via garden mythology via bee-lore) are abstruse. And yes, the arrangements often lack the great quirks and complexities of her earlier work. But a closer listen reveals that the (mostly) antipathetic response to The Beekeeper was far from deserved, not to mention rather unfocused. (Surely there can be few albums in history that have been taken to task by different critics for being under- and over-produced.) There are strong moments here and Amos’s gifts for melody and story-telling are in fine form. Check out the lovers caught between caution and rapture in “Sweet the Sting”; the confrontations with loss and mortality on the title track and the closing “Toast”; the realisation that masculinist symbols may be the solution not the problem in “Cars and Guitars”; “Mother Revolution”’s heartfelt call-to-Moms; the stirring revisionist religious epic “Marys of the Sea”; and the thrilling coda to “Barons of Suburbia.” Amos adds Hammond B3 organ to her keyboard arsenal and her vocals sound particularly rich and sensuous throughout, the radio-friendly, mainstream sound offset by the idiosyncrasies of her delivery and by her lyrical enigmas. (Perhaps her worst idea was relegating the evocative Henry-James-meets-Marc-Chagall ballad “Garlands” to the bonus disc.) It’s an uneven, somewhat compromised album, to be sure, but The Beekeeper remains ripe for reassessment. There’s honey in this here hive.


American Doll Posse (2007)
“The songs that have been coming to me lately, with their varied points of view, have been helping me to see how many different aspects of the self there are and that there is so much to work with, for each of us, at every stage,” Amos wrote in Piece by Piece. Arriving two years later, American Doll Posse proved to be her practical demonstration of that statement. Building on SLG’s character studies and drawing on her Joseph Campbell-schooled study of myth and archetype, Amos conjured five personas based on members of the Greek pantheon and updated for the 00s, developing the protagonists through costume, dedicated blogs and dynamic live shows. Heavy-handed in places, nimble and fleet-footed in others, Posse stomps through musical styles as assuredly as it tramples over gender stereotypes, placing delectable pop gems (“Bouncing off Clouds,” “Secret Spell”) alongside rapturous raunch-rock (“You Can Bring Your Dog,” “Body and Soul”), intimate psychodramas (“Girl Disappearing,” “Smokey Joe”) and gorgeous piano-ballads-gone-glam (“Digital Ghost”). Reflecting Amos’s wide assimilation of influences, the album came to rest most often in the late 1960s/early 70s, combining that era’s protest zeal with its towering, concept-album pomp. The record’s extravagance was not to all tastes. But, for those who were up for it, Posse proved an immersive experience, an antidote to iTunes, and an equally playful and profound treatise on the value of exploring with your identity. Full review here.


Y Kant Tori Read (1988)
From its big-hair-and-bustier cover to its formulaic content, Amos’s doomed debut-proper may have caused her untold humiliation at the time, but it’s become a bona fide cult artefact for fans. In fact, the album rewards a revisit (in the unlikely event that you can actually track down a copy); its synth-pop work-outs have a certain charm (“Heart Attack at 23” is especially choice) and are clearly an integral part of the wider Tori-story. And, recently, stripped down in concert, superior songs such as “Cool On Your Island” and “Etienne” have come of age.


Abnormally Attracted to Sin (2009)
“Your mission: concentrate!!” So shouts a particularly evangelical Amos on “Strong Black Vine,” one of Abnormally Attracted To Sin’s most forceful and persuasive tracks. It’s sound artist-listener advice, for this is another epic album that clocks in at 75 minutes and stacks up to 17 tracks (18 with the lovely bonus song “Oscar’s Theme”). Lacking the persona-concept that gave Posse coherence and dynamism, AATS sometimes flounders in its diverse mix of styles. There are weaker tracks here (the awful “Not Dying Today” and “500 Miles,” in particular, are surplus to requirements) and Amos’s vocals occasionally sound strained, while the much-vaunted “visualettes” also add little to the experience. That being said, there are several worthwhile moments: the galvanising opening salvo “Give,” the spacey “Flavor,” the seductive, synth-heavy title track, the evocative windswept balladry of “Ophelia,” and the atmospheric slow-burn closer “Lady in Blue” all showcase Amos at her best.

Midwinter Graces (2009)
In some ways, a “seasonal” album from Amos makes perfect sense. Her Native American ancestry and her rebellion against her “Christianization” have been focal points of her music, and have turned her into an open, willing student of many different belief systems and practices. (Then there are the memorable covers of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” that she put out in the 90s.) Unsurprisingly, then, Midwinter Graces approaches the genre with a (mostly winning) mixture of reverence and irreverence, transforming the Christmas album into the solstice album, adapting classic carols and featuring a few Amos originals. Amos’s slightly pinched-sounding vocals remain a problem in places (especially when compared with what she’s still able to do with her voice in concert), but the album boasts pleasing, effective arrangements, particularly on “Jeanette, Isabella” and “Winter’s Carol”  (the latter drawn from The Light Princess). Non-essential, perhaps, but a respectable addition to the catalogue, presented with love and care.


Welcome to Sunny Florida [DVD] (2004)
The Original Bootlegs (2005)
Legs and Boots (2007)
One of the most tour-hardy artists on the scene, Amos’s command as a live performer has always constituted a big part of her appeal, and her magnetism in concert is something that no video or audio recording can never fully capture. (Reviews here and here.) Nonetheless, each of these three releases do a pretty good job of conveying the heady experience of Amos Live. The Welcome to Sunny Florida DVD captures Amos on the final night of the Scarlet’s Walk tour in 2003, performing in the trio format (Matt Chamberlain on drums and Jon Evans on bass) that rocks hard while giving the music plenty of space for nuance. Lovingly directed by Loren Haynes, highlights of the performance include a tough “Sugar,” a brilliant “Take To The Sky” and a dynamic “Tombigbee.” As a bonus, the DVD includes a pair of funny, touching interviews with Amos and her mother, Mary. The two bootleg collections showcase the other two incarnations of Amos live. The Original Bootlegs series draws performances from Amos’s solo tour in support of The Beekeeper; notable for their intimacy, the shows found Amos sating her 80s jones in the Piano Bar sections, with memorable covers of everyone from Madonna to Bonnie Tyler, George Michael to A Flock of Seagulls. Legs and Boots (a digital only release) offers 27 performances from the North American leg of the ADP tour, capturing Amos at vigorous, full-band throttle.

* Also well-worth seeking out is the Live At Montreux CD/DVD which features two important early appearances from Amos at the Jazz festival. Full review here.


Tales of a Librarian (2003)
Amos signed off from Atlantic with a solid Best Of collection that brought together songs from her studio albums (plus the “Professional Widow” remix), alongside a few respectable new tracks. Benefiting from a sonic spit-and-polish, the selections from Earthquakes and Pink sound especially vital here, and the album thus offers a decent intro for novices plus a fresh way to approach her work for long-standing fans. Even so, the decision to categorise the tracks thematically, according to the DewEy Decimal System, seems absurdly reductive, particularly for songs as multi-faceted as these.

A Piano (2006)
Essential for Toriphiles, this comprehensive and carefully compiled boxset (courtesy of Rhino) does justice to the range of Amos’s output up to The Beekeeper. A Piano’s five discs offer many delights (though a disappointing dearth of new material and live cuts), including an expanded Little Earthquakes and a very decent collection of B-Sides. Of the previously unreleased songs, the taut “Take Me With You” (which Amos began in 1990 and finally completed for the boxset), the rumbling Beekeeper reject “Not David Bowie” and the epic TVAB outtake “Zero Point” were especially fine. Meanwhile, a demo medley bravely showcased works in progress; in particular, check out “Playboy Mommy,” on which it truly sounds like she’s in the process of channelling the song from another dimension. Full review here.

Fade to Red DVD (2006)
Once again courtesy of Rhino, this is a nicely presented package of Amos’s videos from Little Earthquakes to The Beekeeper. As Abnormally Attracted to Sin’s visualettes proved, Amos and her collaborators have sometimes struggled to transform the arresting images conjured by her lyrics into equally arresting visual images. The best of the videos collected here are at either end of the budgetary scale: Cindy Palmano’s elegant small-scale productions for the Earthquakes singles (necessarily minimalist but fully alert to the nuances of the music) and James Brown’s elaborate accompaniments to the choirgirl singles, particularly the pursuit-through-the-woods in “Spark.” Diffuse audio commentaries from Amos give insights into the filming and production of each video.


Throughout her Atlantic years, Amos delivered a superlative collection of singles, featuring cover versions and/or original tracks as B-Sides. Among the best are the Crucify EP (featuring her classic covers of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Angie” and “Thank You”); Cornflake Girl (with “Sister Janet” and two instrumentals, “All the Girls Hate Her” and “Over It” or with “If 6 Was 9,” “A Case of You” and “Strange Fruit”); Caught A Lite Sneeze (available in lots of incarnations: go for the one with the Chas & Dave covers); Spark (with “Purple People,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” or “Do It Again” and “Cooling”); and Strange Little Girl (with covers of “After All” and “Only Women Bleed”).


Piece by Piece [with Ann Powers] (2005)
“Good artists are the ones that whisper our own stories back to us …” The writing of Piece by Piece may have distracted Amos from fine-tuning The Beekeeper, but the end result was superb: an absorbing, unique work that deftly avoided the usual conventions and clichés of the rock star biog. In collaboration with noted music journalist Ann Powers, Amos developed eight dense and lively chapters that explored her family history, motherhood, public image and the touring life, placing her experiences within the wider frameworks of myth, religion and history. Particularly fascinating is Amos’s account of her creative process, at once mystical and intensely practical - and extremely inspiring. Augmented with “song canvases” and the perspectives of members of Amos’s crew (musicians, manager, husband, chef and security guard among them) Piece by Piece is a bracingly multi-vocal and wide-ranging work.

Comic Book Tattoo (2008)
Art begets art begets art on this mutha of an anthology. Like Piece by Piece, Comic Book Tattoo surpassed expectations. Edited by Rantz Hoseley (dedicatee of “Flying Dutchman,” from whence the collection draws its title) and with an affectionate intro by Neil Gaiman, this massive book of narrative art inspired by 51 Amos songs is a stunning achievement. Faithful to the Amos rubric (“no comic cover versions”), the collection features work from artists and writers both established and new, and its stylistic scope is as broad as that of the music that inspired it. Though quality control is pretty much sustained throughout, the most exciting of the pieces are those which use motifs from the music as a jumping-off place for fresh ideas. Check out Kako’s impressionistic “Marianne,” C.B Cebulski and Ethan Young’s sexy “Teenage Hustling,” Irma Page and Martin Buckingham’s adorable “Snow Cherries From France,” Dame Darcy’s cheeky “Pandora’s Aquarium,” Derek McCulloch and Colleen Doran’s dense “Pretty Good Year,” and Hoseley’s wild phantasmagoria, “Mr. Zebra.” And that’s just for starters … An abundance of riches indeed, Comic Book Tattoo is indispensable for Toriphiles and comic book aficionados alike, a prime slice of what Amos in her Afterward terms “mental mischief.”

Sunday 14 August 2011

Theatre Review: Anna Christie (Donmar Warehouse)

With its sometimes creaky plotting and quaint attempts at rendering “ethnic” dialect (we hear way too much about “Dat ole davil, da sea”), it’s fair to say that Anna Christie (1920) isn’t the Eugene O’Neill play that’s aged the best. But Rob Ashford’s accomplished, atmospheric new production, which opened last week at the Donmar Warehouse, manages to transcend most of the play’s shortcomings, and achieves moments of genuine beauty and poetic intensity. O’Neill’s tale of a young prostitute’s reunion with the sea-captain father who abandoned her to a life of drudgery (and worse) with family members on a farm is most notable for its sympathetic characterisation of its female protagonist. While the other characters are broadly drawn to the point of caricature, O’Neill constructs Anna in more than one-dimension. Tough yet vulnerable, perceptive and intelligent, variously bitter and resigned, she’s a great American heroine.

And while physically not quite the “handsome, large, Viking-daughter” of O’Neill’s specification, Ruth Wilson comes through with a stunning performance here, creating a riveting portrait of a woman bruised by her experiences and seeking rest and redemption. The pivotal scene in which she reveals the truth of her past to the two men who both seek to control her is this production’s deeply affecting highlight.

The male roles are less distinguished but both actors deliver committed performances. Laying heavily into an Oirish brogue but moderating the excessive gesticulating that very slightly marred his Hamlet for me, a toned Jude Law brings great physicality and some witty touches to his role as Burke, the stoker who falls for Anna; his first scene seems destined to become a classic, on several counts. And as Anna’s father, David Hayman starts out rather over-effusively but finds a few touching grace notes in the role as the evening progresses.

The production design is also noteworthy: Paul Wills contributes a wonderful set (the Act 1 to Act 2 transition from saloon bar to barge’s stern is thrilling) and an understated, shanty-influenced score from Adam Cork also adds to the atmosphere. O’Neill’s play is stuck with some dated and problematic aspects but this is a fine, eloquent staging that frequently touches the soul.

The production runs for 2 hours 30 minutes and is booking until 8th October. Further information here. Warning: contains STRONG accents.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

PopMatters: 100 Essential Directors Feature

The epic 100 Essential Directors Feature is now underway at PopMatters: a list of  100 film directors that explores key films, underrated work, and offers a biographical/critical sketch on each of the selected auteurs. I had fun writing about five of my favourite filmmakers for this feature - Claire Denis, Michael Haneke, Mike Leigh, Agnes Varda and Andrzej Wajda - and will publish the pieces here once theyve appeared on PopMatters. In the meantime, you can check out the first, second and third sets of names on the website. 

Thursday 4 August 2011

Theatre Review: Rattigan's Nijinsky (Chichester Festival Theatre)

In 1973, Terence Rattigan was commissioned by the BBC to write a TV script about Vaslav Nijinsky. In Michael Darlow’s summary, the script “traced Nijinsky’s life from his childhood examination for a place in the Imperial Ballet on to his stardom through into irrevocable madness” (Darlow, Rattigan: The Man and his Work, p.444), and focused in large part upon the dancer’s relationship with his mentor/lover Diaghilev. As such, the play directly confronted an “issue” which had been suppressed - for some, problematically so - within Rattigan’s drama up to this point: homosexuality. But, despite a positive response from BBC producers, and his own apparent pride in the project, Rattigan finally decided to withdraw the completed script, and his Nijinsky was never produced.

Nicholas Wright’s new play, Rattigan’s Nijinsky, just opened at the Chichester Festival Theatre and running in rep with the (cross-cast) The Deep Blue Sea, explores the reasons for Rattigan’s decision. It points the finger of blame squarely at Nijinsky’s widow, Romola, who vociferously objected to the portrayal of herself and her husband in the script and threatened Rattigan with legal action if the production went ahead. But the scope of Wright’s play is broader than this. He also includes scenes from Rattigan’s script, which feature Nijinsky, Diaghilev and the young Romola. These moments are interwoven with scenes set in Rattigan’s hotel suite where the ageing, ailing writer receives visits from a BBC producer, the older Romola, and others, while reflecting upon his current reputation and the direction of his life and work.

It’s an intriguing and ambitious mixture of elements, to be sure, and one that generates some effective moments in Philip Franks’s busy production. Malcolm Sinclair’s Rattigan nicely suggests the anger and resentment hiding under the polished façade, and while the play’s structure forces the actor to spend a bit too much time looking on interestedly as scenes from his script come to life around him, the performance becomes more involving as the production progresses: a pivotal late phone-call scene, in particular, is beautifully underplayed.

And yet, as often with the fact-based dramas that are currently so fashionable, there’s a contrived and rather hollow quality to Rattigan’s Nijinsky which prevented complete involvement, for me. Almost every illuminating moment seems undercut by a clunky, obvious touch, and having set up some intriguing parallels - between Rattigan’s reticence about revealing his sexuality versus Diaghilev’s openness, for example - the play is content to fall back on clichés. English reserve versus showy Slavic emotionalism is the order of the day here, and Jonathan Hyde's sometimes over-ripe performance as Diaghilev telegraphs the contrast. (Hyde does have some stylish, witty moments, though.)  And Wright’s writing too often operates on a policy of diminishment. In particular, he demonises the older Romola (a  thickly-accented Susan Tracy) so thoroughly that I felt a perverse inclination to sympathise with her. (She’s presented in her one scene as a homophobe, a snob, and a woman who's quite prepared to resort to blackmail in order to get her way - we’re certainly encouraged to share Diaghilev’s view of her as “a monster.”)

And with the action flitting between locations (London, St. Petersburg, Paris, New York), it’s not surprising that some key elements feel frustatingly sketchy and undeveloped here, and essential motivation fudged. Joseph Drake’s Nijinsky seems to fall for the young Romola (Faye Castelow, non-accented) simply because she dresses in a suit and dances a mean tango, while his descent into madness (cue the straight-jacket) feels like the fastest in history. Nor do the expressionist flourishes and stylised dance scenes that Wright and Franks have incorporated truly take flight.  And there’s a horrible, snide little scene between Rattigan and his mother (played by Tracy again) in which the latter reveals herself as a hopeless philistine who’s entirely oblivious to the reality of her son’s sexuality. (Her daffy, genteelly "English" delusion about her son is presented as the obverse of Romola’s "monstrous" delusion about her husband.)

The most intriguing part of the drama is perhaps Rattigan’s conflict about identifying himself as a gay author, and Wright has written some neat and memorable speeches in which Rattigan talks about his abhorrence of being pigeonholed and the undercurrent of “queerness” that he believes to be present, subtexturally, in all of his work. The words are eloquent and yet, like other such moments here, they have a slightly bogus ring to them, sounding more like the musings of a contemporary literary critic than the plausible reflections of the playwright himself.

The Rattigan/Romola scene, in which the latter argues that “if you choose to depict people who existed in life then it is your duty to be accurate," sets up some interesting issues about the ethical implications of appropriating the lives of others in drama - implications that Wright doesn't really address. Perhaps that's because Romola's warning about the difficulty of representing a genius such as Nijinsky seems spot-on: the scenes from Rattigan's play that are incorporated here don't really make a case for it as a Rattigan masterpiece along the lines of The Deep Blue Sea. (It looks more like a Cause Célèbre-ish mess.)  The pairing of Wright's play with The Deep Blue Sea is revealing in one way, though: it gives the lie to the notion that historical figures necessarily make for more compelling dramatic subjects than characters created from an author's imagination. The people in Rattigan’s Nijinsky all existed - and perhaps they did and said all of the things that Wright gives them to do and say in this play. But do we believe in them as deeply as we believe in Hester, and Freddie, and Sir William in The Deep Blue Sea?  The answer, for this viewer at least, is a definite “No.”

The production runs for 2 hours 30 minutes and is playing in rep with The Deep Blue Sea until 3rd September. Further information here.