In 1991, as Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” recharged rock & roll, Tori Amos and her piano appeared. She was a North Carolinian conservatory dropout with a whole lotta love on the brain. A veteran of one failed rock album, a spandex debacle titled Y Kant Tori Read, Amos recharged herself on Little Earthquakes, emerging as a hennaed adventuress, the rare art-rock communicator who could flawlessly drop difficult bits of Béla Bartók into a tasty home-brew of the classical and the lowdown. Old enough to have worshiped Led Zeppelin as a Seventies kid — and bold enough to seize “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as her own (on 1992’s Crucify EP) — she recognized that grunge’s uneasy blend of emotional distress and sonic kicks represented a state of mind as well as a guitar sound.
On From the Choirgirl Hotel, Amos comes clean with the rock & roll that’s always driven her, from as far back as when she stormed out of her rehearsal room at the Peabody Conservatory. Whereas 1994’s Under the Pink and 1996’s Boys for Pele strove to extend Amos’ voice-and-piano foundation into different areas — R&B and dance — From the Choirgirl Hotel closes up shop and starts over with a live-band recording. A woolly jam dynamic pervades Hotel, from the paisley metallicism that kicks off “Spark” (the current single) to the grooving dream world of “Liquid Diamonds.” Throughout the album, Amos throws herself and her various keyboards into bass-drum-guitar ensembles augmented by percussion loops and string sections. In the past, all elements of her arrangements answered to Amos and her keyboards; now, she replaces that hierarchy with rock interaction. On From the Choirgirl Hotel, she’s just one of several tenders of her own sound garden.
But for all of her new material’s bracing accessibility, very little is very straight-up. Amos remains the girl whose background in European piano literature encouraged her to hear the unforgiving structures of the Baroque era, the vast spiritual and melodic vistas of the Romantic period, and the knotty imperatives of twentieth-century experimentalism as one ongoing compositional story — not a bad basis, thank you, for art rock with guts. And although these mixes don’t hesitate to occasionally bury her voice, Amos often still sings like the coloratura president of Robert Plant’s fan club. On songs like the technoish “Hotel” and the beat-happy “Raspberry Swirl,” moreover, she screws with timbre, lyrics and meter in the proud pop-collage tradition of Nineties artists like My Bloody Valentine, the Smashing Pumpkins, Björk, U2 and Garbage. Other times, Amos is more nostalgic, as on “She’s Your Cocaine,” which feels like the music of the hardest-working bar band — on Saturn.
Amos hasn’t completely abandoned ballads, not with showpieces like “Northern Lad,” as well as “Jackie’s Strength,” the center of this consistently alive album. That song, softly offset with clean guitar repetitions, relies on a magnificent string arrangement by Los Angeles hotshot John Philip Shenale. Amos begins as someone remembering the J.F.K. assassination, focusing on how an entire generation of American women immediately spun the event into a story about his abandoned wife. During this meditation, Amos’ character remembers a friend’s David Cassidy lunch box and sings the following hilarious, deeply Tori line: “Yeah, I mooned him once on Donna’s box.” It’s her fluid answer to the Pumpkins’ masterpiece “1979,” a perfect memory of pop-energy past.
From the Choirgirl Hotel offers chewy tales like the tough sway of “Playboy Mommy,” in which a mother never quite apologizes to her dead daughter for not being a squeaky-clean Carol Brady mom; and “Black-Dove (January),” an interiorized ballad about abuse and escape that breaks into rousing choruses of “But I have to get to Texas/Said I have to get to Texas.” What the album is so unfailingly good at, though, is capturing the exact geography of one woman’s imagination. In dashing rhythmic interpolations, a song titled “Iieee” intercuts different meters and moods — suspended piano landscapes, straightforward rock 4/4 beats, gnarled industrial wastelands and a floating symphonic soundtrack from a film that has opened only in Amos’ head. “We scream in cathedrals,” Amos sings, phrasing with an awesome gravitational pull. “Why can’t it be beautiful?” What the hell is rock & roll these days, anyway? Loud guitars? Transgressive hairstyles? Samples? Electric beats? Platform shoes? At any given time, it’s all or none of these things. But right now, From the Choirgirl Hotel qualifies. It’s a logical outcome of what Tori Amos has been doing this whole decade: In more ways than one, she screams in cathedrals.