Little Earthquakes (Atlantic, 1992)
Crucify (EP) (Atlantic, 1992)
Under the Pink (Atlantic, 1994)
Boys for Pele (Atlantic, 1996)
From the Choirgirl Hotel (Atlantic, 1998)
To Venus and Back (Atlantic, 1999)
Strange Little Girls (Atlantic, 2001)
Scarlet's Walk (Epic, 2002)
Tales of a Librarian: A Tori Amos Collection (Atlantic, 2003)
The Beekeeper (Epic, 2005)
American Doll Posse (Epic, 2007)
Abnormally Attracted to Sin (Universal Republic, 2009)
Midwinter Graces (Universal Republic, 2009)
Tori Amos seemed to come out of nowhere in 1992. Though she'd materialized briefly four years before, fronting a best-forgotten hairspray band that also included future Guns N' Roses drummer Matt Sorum, her solo debut, Little Earthquakes, was one of that year's most improbable success stories. At the time, rock was mostly a boys' club, and a girl who played piano was out of the question. Little Earthquakes trumpeted a sea change, heralding the return of the singer/songwriter and helping to pave the way for Lilith Fair–types from Paula Cole to Ani DiFranco. Its songs are like confidences, full of intimate personal detail, sexual candor ("so you can make me come/that doesn't make you Jesus"), and playfully surreal language that somehow makes emotional sense. The a capella "Me and a Gun" unflinchingly faces her own rape experience; like the love child of Kate Bush and Kurt Cobain, this is an arty singer/songwriter with a jagged alternative edge. This alt-worthiness was reinforced when her piano-and-voice version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (from the Crucify EP, which also includes Tori treatments of the Stones and Led Zep) garnered significant alternative airplay. Still, word of Amos spread like an exotic rumor until Little Earthquakes was suddenly platinum.
Under the Pink is nearly as good. It beats the sophomore jinx by taking more chances—breaking away from personal pain in "God" ("Do you need a woman to look after you?") and "Cornflake Girl," even as her lyrics dive deeper into abstraction. Her popularity had become so great that Boys for Pele entered the charts at #2, but this difficult album resists meeting comprehension even halfway. The pain displayed on "Hey Jupiter" is clear and convincing, but elsewhere the melodies can be as elusive as the words, an insular personal language that only the most committed fan will be motivated to decipher. The move to a band format on From the Choirgirl Hotel provides the focus that had been lacking on the previous album, and pushes her singing to carry as much meaning as the words. To Venus and Back is an ambitious, and only intermittently successful, double-CD set. The studio disc consists of new songs cut with a minimum of preproduction. The spontaneity suits the elementary lilt of "Concertina," but on more demanding constructs such as "Bliss" ("maybe we're bliss/of another kind") she and the band simply sound underrehearsed. The second disc, recorded live on her 1998 tour, passes over her signature songs in favor of B-sides, obscurities, and neglected album tracks.
The mission of Strange Little Girls is gender reversal—Tori takes on a collection of songs ostensibly written from a male viewpoint and turns the tables. The only track that truly fulfills this premise is her hushed reading of Eminem's "'97 Bonnie and Clyde," which unmasks the full horror of his tale of dumping a murdered girlfriend's body. Tom Waits' "Time" and Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence" at least play to her strengths, which cannot be said of her reconstructions of Neil Young, the Beatles, and Slayer.
There's also a concept to Scarlet's Walk, its suite of songs chronicling a cross-country journey in the aftermath of 9/11. The booklet's color-coded roadmap isn't necessary; these songs feel like a triptych. Quietly intense, it is her most carefully crafted and inviting album since Little Earthquakes, the caressing melodies and relatively straightforward narratives of "A Sorta Fairytale" and "Crazy" acknowledging our overriding need for connection.
No compilation could possibly please her famously fussy and proprietary audience, but Tales of a Librarian does a reasonable job of cherry-picking her catalogue, remixing many tracks and reworking some.
The rest of the decade wasn't as kind to Amos: Her albums continued to chart highly, but were very inconsistent. Though "The Power of Orange Knickers," a tuneful duet with Damen Rice, had plenty of life in it, much of The Beekeeper didn't: The eighty-minute album was underproduced, overlong and bland in spots. The rocking American Doll Posse was a slight improvement, balancing a fuzzy concept (the songs were supposedly written by four different incarnations of Tori Amos) with upbeat songs like "You Can Bring Your Dog." Abnormally Attracted to Sin had prog-rock-leaning songs and not enough hooks. Midwinter Graces was a solid, focused Holiday album.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
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