Tori Amos – Tales Of A Librarian

Tori Amos - Tales Of A LibrarianReally more of a contractual obligation than anything, Tales Of A Librarian brings Tori Amos’ contract with Atlantic Records to an end and provides the fans with her first official best-of compilation. As with so many greatest hits collections, the main critique is going to be in the selection of material, though in most cases Librarian gives you what you’d expect; there’s a heavy emphasis on Little Earthquakes, represented by “Tear In Your Hand”, “Me And A Gun”, “Winter”, “Crucify”, “Precious Things” and “Silent All These Years”. Under The Pink is represented by “God”, “Cornflake Girl” and “Baker Baker”, while “Professional Widow” (wildly reworked; see below), “Way Down” and “Mr. Zebra” are here from Boys For Pele (what, no “Caught A Lite Sneeze”?).

There’s a surprising omission in the selection of songs from from the choirgirl hotel as well, as “Raspberry Swirl” is nowhere to be found; that album’s selection instead consists of “Spark”, “Jackie’s Strength”, and a version of “Playboy Mommy” that I’d swear has been, if not re-recorded, then at least heavily remixed. (All of the songs have been subtly reworked at least a little bit, but this is the most extreme example of that.) Perhaps not surprisingly, Strange Little Girls doesn’t make a showing at all, while only “Bliss” is drawn from the double album To Venus And Back.

The early era of Tori’s career – in some ways her most creatively energized years – is also represented by the Little Earthquakes-era B-sides “Mary” and “Sweet Dreams”, though they aren’t the original recordings.

“Mary” and “Sweet Dreams” were both re-recorded from the ground up for this album, and both of them receive a somewhat more raw, stripped-down treatment than their original versions. “Sweet Dreams” was always a bit of a jaunty, rollicking little number, with Tori backed up by the Subdudes, only here it’s arranged a little more loosely (though still with a full band backing), perhaps a little more representative of how it would sound today played live. It’s also shifted down a couple of keys, losing some of the original’s soaring backing vocals in the chorus. “Mary” has undergone an even more striking change, though – it’s gone from the traditional Little Earthquakes-style piano solo to a laid-back full-band arrangement similar to “Sweet Dreams”. And while I prefer the originals of both songs, these new arrangements aren’t bad. Just different. I’ve actually grown to like this alternative reading of “Mary” quite a bit.

Completely new on Librarian are “Angels” and “Snow Cherries From France”, which of course follow the same style as the rearranged B-sides: laid-back, with a small band, something that wouldn’t have been out of place on Scarlet’s Walk.

The whole re-recorded B-side thing bugs me a bit, because there’s something that would easily fulfill the contractual obligation and please the fans: Tori’s B-sides are a goldmine of fantastic material (in fact, while I rarely review CD singles here, I made an exception for some of Tori’s early CD singles because they were actually better than some of the album tracks). Not only are they good material, but they’ve become fairly scarce on CD. Surely a best-of-B-sides collection is waiting to happen somewhere.

Similarly, the bonus DVD of live material, while nice, misses the boat too – for years, Tori’s fans have been waiting for a video compilation on DVD. At least half of the tracks on Librarian have music videos that are just begging for an official release, and they’re some of the best examples of that medium in the past 15 years. Atlantic has announced and then cancelled a Tori Amos music video DVD at least twice to date; rating: 3 out of 4perhaps Librarian could’ve been a simultaneous multimedia release with these same hits receiving a long-overdue DVD treatment.

As it is, though, Librarian is a nice chronicle of Tori Amos’ career, with some interesting tracks that span the gap between where she’s been and where she’s going next.

Order this CD

  1. Precious Things (4:32)
  2. Angels (4:29)
  3. Silent All These Years (4:12)
  4. Cornflake Girl (5:08)
  5. Mary (4:44)
  6. God (3:56)
  7. Winter (5:45)
  8. Spark (4:15)
  9. Way Down (1:52)
  10. Professional Widow (3:50)
  11. Mr. Zebra (1:07)
  12. Crucify (5:02)
  13. Me And A Gun (3:45)
  14. Bliss (3:37)
  15. Playboy Mommy (4:08)
  16. Baker Baker (3:14)
  17. Tear In Your Hand (4:40)
  18. Sweet Dreams (3:41)
  19. Jackie’s Strength (4:27)
  20. Snow Cherries From France (2:56)

Released by: Atlantic
Release date: 2003
Total running time: 79:20

Tori Amos – Scarlet’s Walk

Tori Amos - Scarlet's WalkInspired by the unusually candid post-September 11th confessions of fans she met on tour in late 2001, Scarlet’s Walk is Tori Amos’ return to form after the misstep that was Strange Little Girls, as well as her debut on her first new label since 1988. Scarlet’s Walk gets Tori back to the basics of Little Earthquakes and Under The Pink, ditching the club music elements that dominated her later output on Atlantic. Whether this was her decision or Epic’s call, it doesn’t matter – it was long overdue, and reminds me of what first drew me to her music ten years ago in the first place.

That’s not to say that we’re back to the mostly-piano formula of Little Earthquakes, however – Tori spends much of Scarlet’s Walk backed by a full band, with a few obligatory piano ballads thrown in and even an a capella tune (“Wampum Prayer”) for good measure. But the earnestness of her first two albums returns here, and that’s the “element of the past” that I most cherish about this album. At the risk of offending the dance music fans – and I have to admit, I like Tori’s latter-day clubbish numbers like “Raspberry Swirl” and I’ve broadened my palette and grown fond of quite a few other beat-heavy acts in recent years – sometimes that approach didn’t suit Tori Amos with her confessional, introspective style of storytelling-songwriting. The lead single from Scarlet’s Walk, “A Sorta Fairytale”, points up the difference sharply: there’s still a band backing Tori, but her piano and vocals aren’t having to fight for a spot in the mix. It’s a pleasing alternate-rock brew that supports her instead of working against her.

Other standout tracks include “Amber Waves”, “Crazy” (which may actually be my favorite cut off of the entire CD, rediscovering another element of Tori’s early work, namely the mesmerizing sound of Tori harmonizing with her own vocals), “Taxi Ride”, “Strange”, “Pancake” and the curiously jaunty “Wednesday”. There are a few tracks that don’t quite trip my trigger – I expected a little more out of “I Can’t See New York”, for example, but rating: 4 out of 4I actually do like it – but on a whole, this album is a cohesive collection that stands well alongside Little Earthquakes and Under The Pink – and stands way, way above such recent efforts as Strange Little Girls and the studio disc from To Venus And Back. It doesn’t hide a nasty stain, and it’s not just lying there – Scarlet’s Walk proclaims that Tori Amos has returned.

Order this CD

  1. Amber Waves (3:39)
  2. A Sorta Fairytale (5:30)
  3. Wednesday (2:30)
  4. Strange (3:07)
  5. Carbon (4:36)
  6. Crazy (4:27)
  7. Wampum Prayer (0:45)
  8. Don’t Make Me Come To Vegas (4:52)
  9. Sweet Sangria (4:03)
  10. Your Cloud (4:30)
  11. Pancake (3:56)
  12. I Can’t See New York (7:16)
  13. Mrs. Jesus (3:07)
  14. Taxi Ride (4:02)
  15. Another Girl’s Paradise (3:36)
  16. Scarlet’s Walk (4:18)
  17. Virginia (3:56)
  18. Gold Dust (5:57)

Released by: Epic
Release date: 2002
Total running time: 74:09

Y Kant Tori Read

Y Kant Tori ReadTruly a legendary album, Y Kant Tori Read’s debut (and thankfully only) album appeared and disappeared from the Billboard charts in the summer of 1988 within the space of a month – and no one heard from the band again until one of its members, pianist/vocalist Tori Amos, resurfaced as a solo artist at the forefront of a whole new movement of female artists in 1991.

Before the life-altering events that inspired Little Earthquakes, Amos’ first solo project, happened, she was fronting Y Kant Tori Read, essentially a typical late-80s rock group with a very typical late-80s sound. Those expecting to hear Tori’s trademark melancholy, introspective sound…won’t. But thanks to its abysmal chart performance and its small pressing, Y Kant Tori Read sank into oblivion – until Tori Amos became a household name in the early 90s, which sent the value of any original LP, CD or cassettes of Y Kant Tori Read skyrocketing into the $100 range and beyond. (This has also made it one of the single most bootlegged music releases ever – and even the bootlegs fetch ridiculous prices on eBay.) Legend has it that Tori’s solo contract with Atlantic Records prevents the label from reissuing the album in any form.

And that’s a good thing. Despite the fact that I haven’t been enthralled with everything Tori’s unleashed, Y Kant Tori Read is not a testament to her talents that I’d want released again were I her.

Well, it’s a good thing with the exception of one song.

3 out of 4“Etienne Trilogy” is a linked cycle of two instrumentals sandwiching an absolutely beautiful vocal/piano number which lives up to anything Tori has ever done since. In fact, I’d put “Etienne” up there with “Winter”, “Cloud On My Tongue” and “Sugar”, some of the best stuff she has ever done. You will not be disappointed.

Order this CD

  1. The Big Picture (4:11)
  2. Cool On Your Island (4:50)
  3. Fayth (4:18)
  4. Fire On The Side (4:48)
  5. Pirates (4:15)
  6. Floating City (5:03)
  7. Heart Attack At 23 (5:10)
  8. On The Boundary (4:30)
  9. You Go To My Head (3:46)
  10. Etienne Trilogy (6:28)

    The Highlands / Etienne / Skyeboat Song

Released by: Atlantic
Release date: 1988
Total running time: 59:41

Tori Amos – Strange Little Girls

Tori Amos - Strange Little GirlsIt hides a nasty stain. It was lying there.

Maybe a few months from now, if anyone spots Tori Amos’ Strange Little Girls on my CD shelf, that might be my excuse.

When I first heard about Strange Little Girls, conceptually, I was looking forward to it eagerly. The idea was simple – to cover an entire album worth of songs written by men, particularly those that espouse the mistreatment of women. Wow, I thought, what a damned cool idea! I was pumped. I though this might even be Tori’s return to form after the slight misstep which was the studio-recorded half of 1999’s To Venus And Back, especially when it was announced that she’d be touring sans backing band in support of the album. Make no mistake, I wanted to like Strange Little Girls. And while there is indeed material on there that I like, I can’t help but feeling disappointed by it.

The album gets off to a strong start with a decent cover of “New Age”, very much in line with the sound of from the choirgirl hotel. followed by a stunning rendition of Eminem’s “’97 Bonnie & Clyde”, a murderous father’s justification of killing his ex-wife as told to their daughter, recited in a sinister whisper against a dark, swirling orchestral backdrop that would do any horror flick proud.

It’s with a cover of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence” that things start to go, at least in my opinion, awry. Whereas the original version of that song is almost dance music with its hyperkinetic beat, Tori’s version is somnolently subdued to the point of seeming unenthusiastic. She does succeed in putting a new spin on it – but what point she was trying to make with it eludes me.

And that leads into one of the album’s biggest disappointments, an almost a capella cover of 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love”. I was a little surprised when I first saw that song, a 70s pop classic with ethereal overdubbed background choruses, on the track listing of Strange Little Girls, but upon further reflection I thought maybe Tori would use it as an example of how words can hurt as much as a raised fist. In its original form, “I’m Not In Love” is a good example of low-key British irony – the lyrics are actually quite a humorous study in a man who insists he’s gotten over a relationship when, in fact, he hasn’t, and he keeps trying to justify it: “I keep your picture / on the wall / it hides a nasty stain, it was lying there.”

Tori proceeds to twist that line into a repeated refrain that seems to be trying to find something sinister that simply isn’t there. “It hides a nasty stain, it was lying there,” she sings over and over again, with more emphasis on each reiteration. And with each reiteration, I feel like she’s missed the point of including that song on this concept album. It could be, however, that I’m too close to the original to have much tolerance for a cover version that doesn’t duplicate the original arrangement. The song I was looking forward to the most has become one of the ones that I like the least.

Other songs are really put through the reinterpretive grinder, with a version of Neil Young’s “Heart Of Gold” that manages to sound absolutely nothing like the original, even seeming to ditch Young’s tune in favor of something more hard-rock. And the Lennon/McCartney tune “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” is an 8+ minute anti-gun scree with sound bites from both Presidents Bush and other public and political figures woven into the music. I applaud Tori’s stance against domestic violence, but this is a case where her less-than-subtle approach works to the detriment of her music. I hate to say it, but Strange Little Girls doesn’t stand up to the effectiveness of works by such artists as, say, Martina McBride.

“Rattlesnakes” and “Real Men” fare much better.

It seems like the primary focus of this album was on its packaging, with its four different collectible covers (if I thought you were even remotely inclined to read it, I’d go off on a diatribe about how much I detest the collectible-card-game approach to compact disc releases), and its lavish liner notes spread with a dozen or so full-color photos of Tori in the guise of various characters from the songs, each accompanied by a brief write-up by author Neil Gaiman. I guess I can’t really say, without it being a blatant slam, that I wish that the same attention had been bestowed upon the music…but it does seem like the TLC was divided between the music and the packaging, to the detriment of the former.

Part of my disappointment with Strange Little Girls is that the concept of the album overrode the songs themselves, and because she’s built a reputation for stunning remakes of other people’s music. Her covers of such tunes as “Angie”, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and many others are legend, and have helped the value of some of her older CD singles skyrocket. The idea of a Tori cover album held much promise – until she forgot that rating: 2 out of 4sometimes an idea can be subtly inserted into a song, rather than hitting listeners over the head with that idea with all the subtlety of a sledge hammer.

Tori Amos used to be really good at it, too, which is what makes this all the more disappointing. Hopefully she gets back to form with her next project, because her music has been growing less interesting over time.

Order this CD

  1. New Age (4:36)
  2. ’97 Bonnie & Clyde (5:47)
  3. Strange Little Girl (3:50)
  4. Enjoy The Silence (4:10)
  5. I’m Not In Love (5:39)
  6. Rattlesnakes (3:59)
  7. Time (5:23)
  8. Heart Of Gold (4:00)
  9. I Don’t Like Mondays (4:21)
  10. Happiness Is A Warm Gun (9:55)
  11. Raining Blood (6:22)
  12. Real Men (4:07)

Released by: Atlantic
Release date: 2001
Total running time: 62:09

Tori Amos – from the choirgirl hotel

Tori Amos - from the choirgirl hotelThis one was a real surprise. Since her debut album in 1992, Tori’s music has always been imbued with at least a little bit of rage, from the victimization theme of Little Earthquakes, to the revenge theme of Under The Pink, and 1996’s who-really- knows-what-this-one’s-about Boys For Pèlè. She’s been accused of being everything from an angry feminist to a lesbian, and people either love her music or hate it. (Amusingly, I was once told in an IRC discussion that since I’m male, I have no right to listen to or enjoy Tori’s music because I didn’t agree with one chatter on what a particular song was about – proof that interpretation is everything in Tori’s music.) But this album is a total departure both musically and emotionally. Sure, there are still some ballads that have Tori’s ominously depressing signature (hey – some of us actually like that about her music!), but for the most part this album is a little bit more uplifting and not quite so emotionally distressed – why, in a few cases, it sounds like she’s having fun with it! Another change in Tori’s sound is the addition of a full band, consisting mainly of players who have graced her previous efforts. This time, the one-girl-and-her-piano sound – which some people considered to be Tori’s permanently carved niche in pop music – is pushed into the background in favor of rockier and more experimental combinations which made such previous songs as “Caught A Lite Sneeze” and “The Waitress” such standouts. Possibly my favorite song on the album thus far has been “Raspberry Swirl”, an oddity since I normally can’t stand the thumping-drum-‘n’-bass style, but her vocals make it interesting, especially that positively sultry, breathy “Let’s go” that opens the song. In some places, a little bit of vocal processing makes this sound like4 out of 4 a song that could just as easily have come from Siouxsie and the Banshees.

The atypical burst of joy that fills most of Tori Amos’ latest entry makes it the best thing she’s done since Under The Pink, and is definitely worth some listening time.

    Order this CD in the Store

  1. Spark (4:14)
  2. Cruel (4:07)
  3. Black Dove (January) (4:39)
  4. Raspberry Swirl (3:58)
  5. Jackie’s Strength (4:27)
  6. Iieee (4:08)
  7. Liquid Diamonds (6:21)
  8. She’s Your Cocaine (3:42)
  9. Northern Lad (4:20)
  10. Hotel (5:19)
  11. Playboy Mommy (4:09)
  12. Pandora’s Aquarium (4:46)

Released by: Atlantic
Release date: 1998
Total running time: 54:12

Tori Amos РBoys for P̬l̬

Tori Amos - Boys for PèlèIs it possible that the immensely talented Tori Amos stretched her stylistic envelope about as far as it could possibly go with her 1992 debut album? Or could it be that her subject matter is finally getting so “out there” that I’m losing track of her? Much of the lyrics of 1992’s Little Earthquakes seemed, at least on the surface, to deal with rape; the abusive element continued in 1994 on Under The Pink, which concerned itself with a number of vindictive themes.

So far, I am at a total loss as to what Boys for Pèlè is about. I really can’t decipher most of the lyrics. Tori’s got a penchant for all kinds of clever wordplay and secret messages, but for some reason I’m drawing blanks on a lot of the words this time around. Maybe I just haven’t “been there.” Or maybe she is straying far and wide of what originally drew me to her music. I really can’t tell yet.

Lyrics aside, Boys for Pèlè isn’t especially innovative in the music department alone; “Professional Widow” struck me as being a second dose of “God” from her last album, and I believe I would’ve liked it a lot better if it had been a piano rendering instead of the “funky harpsichord” treatment it got. (I’ll state right here and now, I just do not like the sound of the harpsichord. I don’t like it if the music being played on it was composed centuries ago or mere months ago. This album is smothered with harpsichord, or at least a clavinet trying to pass itself off as one. Urgh!)

At the same time, Boys for Pèlè does exhibit some intriguing new additions to Tori’s repertoire that bear examination next time around. A really jazzy little tune (“In The Springtime Of His Voodoo”) comes out on top as my favorite – it’s a real cookin’, swinging little number! Loved it. I also liked the very percussive “Caught A Lite Sneeze”, the first single off the album. The two big surprises were a couple of numbers on which Tori is joined by a small brass jazz group, and another which features what sounds like a southern gospel choir. Both of these elements are surprising to find on Tori’s music, and they meld with it beautifully.

Still, I found the innovative to be in the minority, but still well worth a listen. When Little Earthquakes was first released, it hit me like a revelation – it was like nothing I’d ever heard before. Now, here it is four years later, and3 out of 4 my biggest criticism of Tori’s two albums since her debut is that both of them tried to improve on areas that needed no improvement, and both of them retained weaknesses that could’ve used some work. Tori has never quite managed to surpass her first effort. Or equal it.

    Order this CD in the Store

  1. Beauty Queen / Horses (6:07)
  2. Blood Roses (3:56)
  3. Father Lucifer (3:43)
  4. Professional Widow (4:31)
  5. Mr. Zebra (1:07)
  6. Marianne (4:07)
  7. Caught a Lite Sneeze (4:24)
  8. Muhammed My Friend (3:48)
  9. Hey Jupiter (5:10)
  10. Way Down (1:13)
  11. Little Amsterdam (4:29)
  12. Talula (4:08)
  13. Not the Red Baron (3:49)
  14. Agent Orange (1:26)
  15. Doughnut Song (4:19)
  16. In The Springtime Of His Voodoo (5:32)
  17. Putting the Damage On (5:08)
  18. Twinkle (3:12)

Released by: Atlantic
Release date: 1996
Total running time:

Tori Amos – Under The Pink

Tori Amos - Under The PinkShe’s back again, perhaps a little more contemporary than she was with Little Earthquakes, and more than likely as a result of her surprising success things have moved into a more modern direction. The verdict? Too bad. Her debut album was so powerful simply because it was drastically different from current product. The changes, while not quite a wholesale defection to commercial expediency, really wind up being unnecessary. But there are enough songs which seem to be on the right track in spite of themselves – “Pretty Good Year”, the seemingly Ren & Stimpy-inspired “Space Dog”, and the curious 3 out of 4“Icicle”. The standouts are the likeably different “The Waitress” and as before, an emotional roller coaster ride comes out as my favorite on the entire album, “Cloud On My Tongue”. The album’s weakness is, in turns, trying to be too different from its predecessor and then trying to be too much like it.

  1. Pretty Good Year (3:25)
  2. God (3:58)
  3. Bells for Her (5:20)Order this CD in the Store
  4. Past the Mission (4:05)
  5. Baker Baker (3:20)
  6. The Wrong Band (3:03)
  7. The Waitress (3:09)
  8. Cornflake Girl (5:06)
  9. Icicle (5:47)
  10. Cloud on My Tongue (4:44)
  11. Space Dog (5:10)
  12. Yes, Anastasia (9:33)

Released by: Atlantic
Release date: 1994
Total running time: 56:40