Tori Amos is a songstress of many hats, some of which are more
flattering than others.
She started out sporting a rock-chick hat, along with a bustier and
the requisite spandex pants, back in the pop-metal Y
Kant Tori Read days. Then it was the chapeau of survival with
Little Earthquakes, the
centerpiece of which is the a capella "Me And a Gun," Amos' account
of being sexually assaulted. (Amos would later refer to this
experience in more flippant terms:
"I got my rape hat on/But I always could accessorize," she quips in
By the time Amos' last album, Boys for Pele, hit record shops
she was wearing too many caps to count: producer, piano prodigy,
On Amos' highly-anticipated fifth album, from the choirgirl
hotel, the girl with the piano reveals just how well she
accessorize. Amos warned everyone she'd allow that piano to take a
seat this time around, and many longtime fans were afraid that the
loved would be left in the dust. Instead, she's more alive than ever,
full band -- including the Meters' George Porter, Jr., drummer Matt
Chamberlin (who's played with Edie Brickell, Pearl Jam, Critters
Buggin) and Amos' longtime
guitarist Steve Caton -- to back her up.
The result is a new Amos sound, one that is richer, more complex,
more polished -- and in many ways more accessible -- than some of
efforts, especially the discordant Pele. And while Amos' prior
served up huge helpings of cayenne pepper, chocolate, or sometimes
oil, choirgirl is like a satisfying, balanced meal.
Most of Amos' recordings have been informed by tragedy and loss,
and choirgirl is no different. Around Christmas of 1996,
Amos suffered a miscarriage, and the new album speaks directly to
of that child.
In the first single,"Spark," Amos' voice is coolly distorted as she
sings, "She's convinced she could hold back a glacier/But she couldn't
baby alive." Throughout the song she curses the "divine master plan"
Fates, but her anger is restrained behind layers of keyboard, drums
piano. Only during the bridge does the roiling piano reveal shades of
There is "Jackie's Strength," a string-laden piano piece that seems
to be both a personal
search for inner fortitude and a tribute to a nation of woman who
Jackie Kennedy as role model. The song presents a flip side to Amos'
"Professional Widow" from Pele, a song which attacked
women who construct their careers from the ashes of their dead
Instead of sending her songs to the remix artists this time around,
Amos did her own dance tracks in-house. choirgirl is well-
the club scene in England (where Amos recorded the album),
especially in sultry
tracks like "Cruel" and "Liquid Diamonds," and the jaunty, dizzying
In "Iieee," Amos unites a club sensibility with her
penchant for gut-punching lyrics. "We scream at cathedrals/Why
can't it be
beautiful/Why does there gotta be a sacrifice?" Her voice is like a
force of nature, pulling listeners in.
Amos lets her bluesy side come through in the mind-bending "She's
Cocaine," a study on love's power structures. "She says you control
she says you don't control it/Then she says you're controlling/The
makes you crawl," Amos howls in her best PJ Harvey sendup. The
band is in
full force here; "Cocaine" will make a great number to jam on when
takes it on the road.
All the elements on choirgirl are distilled in "Hotel,"
which moves effortlessly from techno to baroque to piano thrash,
its harrowing feel. The song is like a spy novel, with Amos
constantly seeking someone just out of reach. "You were wild/where
are you now?" she yearns as the music shifts into a
Nine Inch Nails-inspired interlude. Later, we hear snatches of the
Pele as she trills, "I have to learn to let you crash down." And
in yet another
segment Amos and her piano break free in an exhilarating -- and
musically tricky --
romp that's one of the best moments on the album.
The only things keeping choirgirl from being a perfect album
are a few cloying moments in songs like "Northern Lad" -- which
much like something Amos would have sung in bars 15 years ago --
as well as
Amos' occasionally cryptic lyrics, some of which may never be
translated into common English.
But her ability to communicate through the tones of her voice, as
well as through the impeccable structures of her music, are what
make Amos so
well-loved. "Don't judge me so harsh little girl/so you got a playboy
mommy," Amos pleads in "Playboy Mommy," one of the most moving
choirgirl. The tension between her desire to devote all her
energy to her career and her desire to be a mother has taken its
toll on Amos, and that message rings loud and clear here. "I'll say it
here by your grave/Those angels can't ever take my place."
"Merman," a track only available through the Internet to those who
order choirgirl from Tower Records, is a heart-wrenching
sung to the spirit of her departed child: "Sleep now/You're my little
girl/Go to bed/The priests are dead." It's just Amos and her piano,
bare tones revealing pure sorrow.
Amos may be mourning the loss of something
precious, but she's never sounded so alive.