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Chicago Tribune (US)
Thursday, January 18, 1996
PLAYING WITH PAIN
WHEN TORI AMOS MAKES MUSIC, HER
LIFE IS AN OPEN SONGBOOK
By Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune Rock Critic.
One of her best-known songs is called "Cornflake Girl," but for many of her
detractors and even some of her admirers, "flake" will do just fine in
describing Tori Amos.
This is, after all, a singer who talks without a hint of sarcasm about "communicating
with the fairies," who has lip-synched serenely on a video while rats skittered
across her body, and who performed Nirvana's incendiary "Smells Like Teen
Spirit" as a straight-faced piano nocturne. And speaking of the piano, just
what is she doing to that instrument on stage anyway? Amos sits astride the
bench as though she were riding a palomino, while grinding, writhing and
moaning to the rhythms she generates on the 88 keys.
Tori Amos is a button pusher, the type of artist who draws attention to herself
as naturally as a pond attracts geese. But Amos' audacity often serves a deeper
end than mere self-promotion.
Witness the performances she gave on her last tour, in 1994. On many nights
she would deviate from the script, sometimes interrupting the songs her
intensely loyal audience paid to hear while her mind wandered. But she wouldn't
be thinking about the fantastic room-service meal she was going to order back
at the hotel, or the cold beverage awaiting her backstage. Instead, she would start
to sing an unfamiliar melody and a lyric as fresh as a newly opened wound,
about the traumatic breakup she was going through with her "soul mate." Pretty
soon these fragments would turn into songs, the backbone of her next album, "Boys
for Pele" (Atlantic), due out Tuesday, even though she didn't know it then.
"I couldn't stop them from coming," Amos
says of the new songs. "And some of the things they
were telling me I didn't want to know. I would have difficulty finishing a
song, and then a voice would tell me, 'That's because you haven't experienced
the second verse yet.' Sometimes, in the middle of a concert, it would arrive.
"And sometimes the fury of it would made me step
back," she says, and then quotes from one of the new album's key songs, "Blood
Roses": "'I shaved every place where you been.' I
began to live these songs as we separated. The vampire in me came out. You're
an emotional vampire, with blood in the corner of your mouth, and you put on
matching lipstick so no one knows."
When he sucks you deep
Sometimes you're nothing but meat
Even Amos was taken aback by what she was dredging up from her psyche. "It was startling to find this part of my personality, to
have this respectable life going on, 'the totally independent woman,' and then this
other extreme. . . ."
Her willingness to confront and even indulge those extremes is what separates
Amos from most songwriters. Born in North Carolina 32 years ago to a strict
Methodist family, she was a child prodigy pianist who later trained at a music
conservatory, then in her late teens abandoned the instrument and ventured to
Hollywood where she hooked up with a cookie-cutter hard-rock band, the
ill-fated Y Kant Tori Read. She suffered what she describes as a "near nervous breakdown" and returned home, where
she rediscovered the piano and found her voice as a solo performer who
trafficked in confessional songs packed with intimate detail.
"I came to realize that everything I needed was
inside myself," she says. "It's like you don't
think about how you drink water, you just do. It was the same way with music. I
had been playing piano ever since I was in diapers. It wasn't an analytical
Her solo debut, the 1991 "Little Earthquakes," plunged into a world of defiled
innocents and victims, among them Amos herself, who turned her own rape by an
acquaintance into a harrowing a cappella catharsis, "Me and a Gun." Her 1994
release, "Under the Pink," found Amos investigating femininity, identity,
self-worth and sex with rapturous assertiveness.
These albums were like a soundtrack for the ground-breaking movie "Thelma
and Louise"; the first could have been dedicated to Geena Davis' naive Thelma,
the second to Susan Sarandon's take-charge Louise. "Boys for Pele" takes the
movie metaphor to its climactic scene of suicide/transcendence, with the duo
plunging a car off a cliff rather than meekly surrender to the authorities. In
the same way, Amos finds herself falling without a parachute on the new album.
"I'd never allowed myself to jump off the cliff
by myself," she says of her first self-produced album. "But with this one, it was like, 'You know, guys, thanks
for the lessons, but give me my own Formula One car - let's race!' I was at the
point I could not answer to anybody. I'd been answering my whole life to some
Among them: her preacher father, her former producer, Eric Rosse, and God
himself, all of whom figure in the album's passion play about miscommunication
between the sexes. The album title refers to Pele the volcano goddess, a symbol
of female empowerment. "And Moses I know/I know you've seen fire," Amos sings
on "Muhammad My Friend," "But you've never seen fire/Until you've seen Pele
A journey for Amos listeners
The disc is full of such evocative, if somewhat oblique, imagery, its lush
contours created by a cast of 70 musicians, including a gospel choir, an
English brass band and such stellar rhythm-makers as bassist George Porter Jr.
and drummer Manu Katche. Yet for all the baroque ornamentation, the disc rarely
feels cluttered. Amos' long-lined piano and harpsichord melodies and
voluptuous, multi-octave singing are the record's core, and they lead the
listener on a cathartic journey of self-discovery.
"In my relationships with men, I was always
musician enough, but not woman enough," Amos says. "I always met men in my life as a musician, and there
would be magic, adoration. But then it would wear off. All of us want to be
adored, even for five minutes a day, and nothing these men gave me was ever
"So when it came time to make this album, I went
to Louisiana, back to the South and the old-world church, to the place that
deemed wrong Mary Magdalene and the shadow-sorcerer side in the Bible. I went
to reclaim that hidden womanhood. Because you can't have grace without the
Which is as good a way as any of describing the world conjured by Amos on "Boys
for Pele," a journey into the contradictions of a woman's heart.
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