In September, Tori Amos will release her fifteenth album, Native Invader. Tori, along with Polly Jean Harvey and Björk, was at the forefront of a new wave of female alternative music in the early ’90s. Never as avant-garde as Björk or as rock as Polly Jean, Tori had a uniquely direct style that was equally as non-conformist as her two contemporaries. Her main devices of confrontation were her frank lyrical style and uncompromising piano playing.
In the wider music community, Tori is seen as a ‘90s phenomenon. She was distinctive enough to be well known even by those who didn’t know her music, and erroneously referred to as the Cornflake Girl, by people who clearly paid no attention to the lyrics of the song from which that title comes. It’s been 19 years since her last hit single so you could be forgiven for thinking she hasn’t been releasing any music at all since the ‘90s. She has.
Since the turn of the century, Tori has spent the majority of her career making overlong, frustratingly patchy albums that were of interest to an increasingly smaller group of fans. That doesn’t take from the fact that her five-album run in the ‘90s, from Little Earthquakes in 1992 to To Venus and Back in 1999 showcased a supreme talent. For a generation who has not even heard of her and for another generation who thinks she quit making music over a decade ago Tori Amos is ripe for re-assessment. These are her starting eleven.
Song for Eric (1992)
Tori is of Native American and Celtic ancestry, both of which can be subtly heard in the stark melody of this a cappella piece written for her then partner Eric Rosse. It’s a brief but highly effective song. Two-thirds of the way through it erupts into one of her most piercing and arresting vocals. Song for Eric was not her first a cappella song, nor would it be her last. It followed Me and A Gun, the lead track off her debut EP of the same name and was followed by Wampum Prayer many years later on 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk. It displays her naked vocal tone, allowing undistracted appreciation.
Over it (1994)
In contrast to Song For Eric, Over It has music but no vocals. Tori plays piano as if it were a natural biological process to her. She carries it out almost involuntarily, the left hand independent of the right, playing to perfectly accent and counter the main melody with subconscious instinct. Over It is an involved piece displaying her talent at the keys; a talent for which she would be invited to record an album of classical interpretations by the esteemed imprint Deutche Grammophon in 2011, Night of the Hunters.
This is the song that hooked many Tori fans. Childhood imagery frames the setting for one of the best evocations of a father-daughter relationship set in song. Winter is filled with deeply poignant moments, not least of which when she laments that ‘things are going to change so fast’. As much as the feeling of lost childhood permeates Winter, each chorus is resolved with a rolling piano passage offering comfort and closure. Deft orchestral chords sweep through the background and drive home the mounting majesty of it all. Tori is almost in tears when she sings that final refrain. Winter deserves a place as a standard of the singer-songwriter genre. Magnificent.
Jackie’s Strength (1998)
Tori’s ability to write a gorgeous piano ballad is commonplace in her catalogue, but rarely has her storytelling been so naturally realised than in Jackie’s Strength – references to anorexia notwithstanding. The subject matter of Jackie Onassis, couching of the song in strings and the addition of a rickety old guitar late in the first verse gives this quite a retro feel. Taken from her 1998 album From the Choirgirl Hotel, Jackie’s Strength is ample reason to investigate her mid-period albums for hidden gems.
Also from that same album is this idiosyncratic curio. From the Choirgirl Hotel is perhaps her most accomplished and consistent album, where she lays off the piano for a reasonable amount of time. Or at least relegates it enough to allow her to explore all sorts of sensual and rhythmic textures. This sort-of title track is compelling in its complexity, moving from Gothic vocal passages to marching drums to synth squiggles, circling through these phases until an almighty middle 8 comes crashing in, where she surely pulls off the piano performance of her career. The approach of adding live drums to the array of synths that flit around Hotel gives it a much earthier tone than if her music was matched with synthetic drums.
Caught a Lite Sneeze (1996)
Caught a Lite Sneeze introduced us to Tori at the harpsichord. The harpsichord is much less expressive than a piano, so Tori uses it to add a brittle, baroque dimension to her music. Like her Bösendorfer piano, she utilizes the harpsichord for multiple aspects of a song. The base notes are particularly effective; as are the spindly high-register tones in the chorus. Her glorious piano returns to help close the track and the contrast between those two instruments works beautifully. To release a lead single of such peculiar and novel instrumentation in the mid-90s shows her singular vision and confidence in her art. She was working in the shadows of no-one at this point.
It is somewhat a pity that as Tori’s music became less compelling in the 21st Century her vocals became much more serene. Her performances on several tracks on her last great album, 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk, were markedly more smooth than on her ‘90s output. Nowhere more than in the final minutes of Virginia where she converses with reversed, muted incantations of her own voice building a mesmerising end to one of her most quietly beautiful songs. It was also a period when she pulled back from indulging her habit of detouring into whimsy or drama two-thirds the way into a song and as that trend continued into her later period albums her music became more AOR.
It has been reported that Tori wrote Sugar in just 10 minutes while working on tracks to supplement her single releases. It can’t be underestimated that the music backing Tori contribute as much to the beauty of the track as her vocal melody. Basseless trip-hop beats and chirping crickets accompany the poignant keys she’s navigating with. For my money, her best b-side and that is not faint praise as she had some incredible flip-sides in the ’90s – enough to make a great 12 track album with. Highly recommended.
In some circles, Tori is known for her covers. Some have praised her for her interpretive skill. Others were bewildered as she took on Smells Like Teen Spirit and Losing My Religion in the ’90s. Fans are going to lap it up if it’s just her at her piano doing someone else’s acknowledged classic. It’s when she charges the song with new power that I am impressed most. Exhibit A: Carnival – a bossa nova song from the late ’50s, recorded (and reconditioned) for the Mission Impossible II soundtrack.
Tori drags out layers of languid disinterest, slowly turning the song from lethargy to menace. Midway through it veers into a percussively seductive piece with insistent beats and swirling synths, grinding and grooving until it climaxes. All this to be thrown away on a soundtrack that very few people remember? She should have kept this for her covers album.
Yes, Anastasia (1994)
If it’s a proper epic you’re after then Yes, Anastasia might do the trick. At over 9 and a half minutes long, this is her opus. Part whispered, part operatic, part ballet, part hurricane. Lyrically, it’s total guff, though. Like many long songs, some of it doesn’t even have to be that good as long as it brings you somewhere wonderful in the end. Anastasia is punctuated by what is her most bombastic orchestration, making it exceedingly rich for some tastes. If you do make it to the 6-minute mark you’ll most likely have no trouble maintaining interest the whole way to the end as the blocks of silence disappear and it’s all full throttle, high drama and octave-chasing vocals until you start wondering if the ghost of Wagner was involved. Keep in mind – it takes 50 listens to make any sense of it.
Code Red (2007)
While very little of Tori’s music since 2002 has been truly awful, the quality control certainly dropped after Scarlet’s Walk. A three album run in the late ’00s – The Beekeeper, American Doll Posse and Abnormally Attracted to Sin – featured over 60 songs in total which could easily have been limited ten tracks each and no one would have felt short-changed. The overall experience of listening to any of those albums is a feeling of dilution. There are many gems to be found but hardly anything is absolutely essential. To represent that era I offer Code Red – a sinuous melody interspersed with guitar and grainy vocals. Twelve of these would be most welcome on Native Invader, come September.