(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Monday, May 18, 2015

Recording review - Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes/Under the Pink reissues (2015)

Who's that girl? Tori Amos reveals her assertive vulnerability


How does the advice go? If you want to be successful, just be yourself. If anyone can attest to that, it’s Tori Amos. She got her start fronting a synth-pop group, Y Kant Tori Read, that never made much of an impression. For better or worse with that band, she let the record company call the shots and dress up her image, and none of that connected with a larger audience. Rather than give up, though, she turned around and came back with two solo albums that overturned everyone’s assumptions.

It's no coincidence that the cover of Little Earthquakes (1992) shows her emerging from her box. The airbrushed redhead from Y Kant Tori Read returned to her classical piano roots and found her sound, but more importantly found her voice. At first glance, she may have seemed like a normal singer-songwriter with solid vocal chops and pretty keyboard riffs, but she turned out to be a feminist poet with a talent for strong imagery and a yen to draw back the curtain on her own experiences. The piano and backing string arrangements reminded people of Joni Mitchell or Kate Bush, but her lyrics had a touch of Patti Smith and Lou Reed, yielding songs that flowed fluidly between ethereal beauty and self-aware grit. On Little Earthquakes, she processed and rejected a lifetime of repression, especially seen through lenses of gender and religion. Her authenticity was as honest as punk rock, but its strength came from its assertive vulnerability: she embraced her emotions but had the distance to put them into perspective.

That honesty actually increases the impact of her more confrontational songs. The provocative religious imagery in “Crucify” or righteous anger on “Precious Things” (“So you can make me cum/ That doesn’t make you Jesus”) are more shocking because they’re woven from her own life and frustrations. Amos also demonstrates a good sense of emotional dynamics. For example, the curdled fury of “Precious Things” gives way to crystalline calm on “Winter”, which stays with the theme of self-discovery, but dresses it in metaphor. The culmination, though, is the a capella lament, “Me and a Gun”, which recounts a rape experience with stark and ugly brutality.

Despite those challenges to gentle sensibilities, though, Little Earthquakes is also stunningly musical. String flourishes occasionally add some orchestral depth, the melodies develop rich complexity over time, and Amos repositions her classical origins into a pop context. She also introduces her idiosyncratic phrasing, both on the keyboard and in her singing. Like Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, or Elvis Costello, she instinctively knows how to stretch time and then catch up to color the meaning of her lines.

If that first solo album tried to erase the bitter memory of Y Kant Tori Read, two years later, she had become confident enough to integrate more of her rock and pop side into her music. Under the Pink still had the piano foundation, but Amos was willing to tap into a stronger rock feel on some songs, adding fuzzed guitar and harder edges. The richer stylistic palette gave the collection a more immediate feel. Like Little Earthquakes, though, these songs were the opposite of pop fluff. Even when she followed a verse-chorus structure, her progressions offered nice surprises and she gave her artier side free rein on songs like "Bells For Her".

The opening salvo of Under the Pink whipsaws between extremes of texture and emotion. The wistful piano line of "Pretty Good Year" provides sonic continuity to Little Earthquakes, but it incorporates a trigger moment accented with a gut punch of bombastic guitar before settling again. Then, Amos begins the album in earnest with "God", where she breaks loose from her past with spiky cactus guitar riffs, a funky rhythmic groove, and the cleansing fire of sarcasm. She had appropriated religious imagery on "Crucify" to make her point, but now she challenges the whole order, offering heretical condescension for the Patriarchy. The chaotic guitar noise seems symbolic of both the outraged reaction she expects and her own childhood conscience. Either way, it's unable to break her cool rationality, "Tell me you're crazy, maybe then I'll understand." It's a powerful moment, and Amos wisely leaves room for it to digest by changing gears with the dreamy "Bells for Her", which features a softly chiming prepared piano.

Both "God" and the catchy "Cornflake Girl" were rock hits, but Amos hadn't ignored her lusher musical side. The sprawling "Yes, Anastasia" revels in rich piano expression as it references both Joni Mitchell and Aaron Copland. But rather than a sharp divide in her musical persona, these two extremes were now integrated and gave a truer sense of who Tori Amos was as person, performer, and composer.

These two reissues celebrate that milestone, not only by cleaning up the mix -- Little Earthquakes sounds quite a bit crisper now -- but also by collecting most of Amos' early B-sides and several live versions. Many of the bonus tracks on Little Earthquakes were rejected songs from the recording sessions and demos she did for Atlantic Records. Some of these, while good, don't fit the mood she established on that album, but others like "Upside Down" and "Take to the Sky" would have been right at home. The peak is her stark performance of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", which is as far from grunge as possible, but it captures Kurt Cobain's intent better than any other band has managed to do. The concert takes that round out the bonus material are all fairly good; in particular, her arrangements of "Mother" and "Little Earthquakes" are both quite intense.

The Under the Pink extras include "Honey", which was cut late from the album for "The Wrong Band". It's a tough trade-off and Amos has publicly regretted it. Head to head, "Honey" is a stronger song, but "The Wrong Band" lightens the mood between the introspective "Baker Baker" and the bitterness of "The Waitress". Some of the other bonus tracks for Pink feature Amos' improvisational skills, including the Gershwin-esque "All the Girls Hate Her", and the live material gives a great sense of how confident she got playing with the rhythms of her phrasing.

With so much extra music, there are a few misfits -- C.J. Bolland's remix of "God" doesn't do it any favors, "Humpty Dumpty" and "Home on the Range" are both fairly weak -- but these deluxe editions do a great job of showing how Amos recovered and reclaimed her Self and found her path towards becoming such an iconic musician.

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