Little Earthquakes

Newcomer Tori Amos's songs are smart, melodic and dramatic; the deeper you listen, the hotter they get. Amos shares common ground with artfolk songstresses like Kate Bush and Jane Siberry, but while they often deal in abstruse, poetic terms, Amos has a tendency to cut to the quick, to face facts, to call a rape a rape.

Little Earthquakes is an often pretty, subtly progressive song cycle that reflects darkly on sexual alienation and personal struggles. Aiming for a delicate balance between the earthy and the ethereal, Amos shifts from a whispering coyness to full-throated earnestness (overearnestness, at times) and a quivery vibrato-laden holler — akin to Siouxsie Sioux's.

From the outset, all is not roses. In the opening tune, "Crucify," Amos sings, "I've been looking for a savior in these dirty streets/Looking for a savior in between these dirty sheets." The difficulty of asserting one's own voice is the subject of "Silent All These Years." Rage often bubbles below the sensuous surface.

On the subject of sex, Amos is ambivalent and ultimately poignant. The teasing Kurt Weill-meets-Queen cabaret act of "Leather" sets up a marked contrast to the album's most chilling track, "Me and a Gun." After the denser production approaches on the rest of the album — with strings, creamy electric guitars and fanciful arrangements caressing her piano foundation — we hear the stark sound of her unadorned voice taking the role of a rape victim, who endures the attack while desperately rationalizing that "I haven't seen Barbados, so I must get out of this."

By the time the refrain in the closing title track comes around ("Give me life give me pain/Give me myself again"), we feel as though we've been through some peculiar therapy session, half-cleansed and half-stirred. That artful paradox is part of what makes Little Earthquakes a gripping debut.