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.
THE “DIFFICULT” MASTERPIECE
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.
THE MULTI-MEDIA OPUS
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.
THE CULT CLASSIC
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.
ON THE ROAD
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.”