It 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 sometimes 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.
- New Age (4:36)
- ’97 Bonnie & Clyde (5:47)
- Strange Little Girl (3:50)
- Enjoy The Silence (4:10)
- I’m Not In Love (5:39)
- Rattlesnakes (3:59)
- Time (5:23)
- Heart Of Gold (4:00)
- I Don’t Like Mondays (4:21)
- Happiness Is A Warm Gun (9:55)
- Raining Blood (6:22)
- Real Men (4:07)
Released by: Atlantic
Release date: 2001
Total running time: 62:09