Salvaging Beauty From Loss

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

"Talula.")

By the time Amos' last album, Boys for Pele, hit record shops

in 1996,

she was wearing too many caps to count: producer, piano prodigy,

first-class fruitcake.

On Amos' highly-anticipated fifth album, from the choirgirl

hotel, the girl with the piano reveals just how well she

can

accessorize. Amos warned everyone she'd allow that piano to take a

back

seat this time around, and many longtime fans were afraid that the

Tori they

loved would be left in the dust. Instead, she's more alive than ever,

with a

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

her previous

efforts, especially the discordant Pele. And while Amos' prior

works

served up huge helpings of cayenne pepper, chocolate, or sometimes

castor

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

the loss

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

keep a

baby alive." Throughout the song she curses the "divine master plan"

and the

Fates, but her anger is restrained behind layers of keyboard, drums

and

piano. Only during the bridge does the roiling piano reveal shades of

rage.

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

looked to

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

husbands.

Instead of sending her songs to the remix artists this time around,

Amos did her own dance tracks in-house. choirgirl is well-

informed by

the club scene in England (where Amos recorded the album),

especially in sultry

tracks like "Cruel" and "Liquid Diamonds," and the jaunty, dizzying

"Raspberry Swirl."

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

Your

Cocaine," a study on love's power structures. "She says you control

it/Then

she says you don't control it/Then she says you're controlling/The

way she

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

Amos

takes it on the road.

All the elements on choirgirl are distilled in "Hotel,"

which moves effortlessly from techno to baroque to piano thrash,

never losing

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

harpsichord from

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

sounds too

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

pieces on

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

loud

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

lullaby

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,

their

bare tones revealing pure sorrow.

Amos may be mourning the loss of something

precious, but she's never sounded so alive.