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TORI AMOS COVERS ALL THE BASES
New Album Features Dramatic Reinterpretations
....PERHAPS THE MOST ENDURING female singer/songwriter of the '90s, Tori Amos has racked up a smattering of Grammy nominations, platinum-selling albums and public praise since her start as a solo musician in 1991. The artist takes on a new challenge September 18 - attempting her sixth straight million-selling album - with Strange Little Girls (Atlantic.) By strict definition a covers album, Amos reinterprets tunes written by male songsmiths ranging from John Lennon to Eminem, and performs the tracks from a female perspective. The result is a dozen-song assortment of radically revamped essentials, many of which are barely recognizable from their original form.
While cover songs have always been a part of Amos's repertoire - from her early rendering of Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You" to distinct takes on Led Zeppelin's "Thank You" and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" - the pianist's latest undertaking is a different affair altogether. For the most part, Amos preserves the original lyrics of the songs at hand. But her sharp vocal and instrumental divergences usually present the numbers in an entirely new light - sometimes leaving the listener to ponder, "When is a cover version not a cover version?"
The full song index, in order, with the original artists in parentheses: "New Age" (The Velvet Underground), ""97' Bonnie and Clyde (Eminem), "Strange Little Girls" (The Stranglers), "Enjoy the Silence" (Depeche Mode), "I'm Not in Love" (10cc), " "Rattlesnakes" (Lloyd Cole and The Commotions), "Time" (Tom Waits), "Heart of Gold" (Neil Young), "I Don't Like Mondays" (The Boomtown Rats), "Happiness is a Warm Gun" (The Beatles), "Raining Blood" (Slayer), and "Real Men" (Joe Jackson).
Speaking via telephone from a beach house in England, Amos tells ICE, "One of the real premises for the record was how men say things and what women hear. To do that, I had to first be clear on what a man says." Amos set a second parameter for her selections: "Also, they had to reflect our time. There had to be some kind of resonance." Amos's updates of "Happiness is a Warm Gun" and "I Don't Like Mondays," for example, revive the contemporary gun-control argument, and became clear candidates for this album following the shooting at Santana High School in San Diego this past March.
Amos called together a small crew of fellow musicians for the release, which she refers to as her "laboratory of men" - drummer and co-producer Matt Chamberlain, King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew and bassists Justin Meldal-Johnsen and John Evans. Starting February 1, the assemblage holed up in Amos's own Martian Studios in Cornwall, England, and completed the endeavor in mid-July. The entire album was tracked live.
On the first cut, Amos aligns herself with the subject - a nude woman wearing only a necklace and mulling over the future. "In New Age," she says, "the character is really engulfed in this passion. And I think she's really worried about what the new age is going to be, and she's determined not to sit on the sidelines anymore as it develops. There's this igniting of passion on the whole record." She continues, "I wanted to have this balmy, undulating rhythm going on... sort of stripped. And that's where the passion was coming from." Amos actually used an early and subsequently altered version of the song's lyrics, which she heard on a Velvet Underground bootleg from the late 60's. On her rendition of Eminem's controversial "97' Bonnie and Clyde" - which depicts the narrator's brutal murder of his own wife - Amos assumes the role of the victim. As she notes, "To me it's the myth about domestic violence, that a woman dies and a man is telling their little girl all sorts of stuff. The woman, as she's dying, understands that her daughter will grow up and become a strange little girl and divided forever."
To reenact the song's setting, Amos' crew built a small box inside of which she recorded the vocals - a reconstruction of the car's trunk that casts a new, eerie shadow over the song. "Happiness is a Warm Gun," the first track established for the release, is also recreated in an innovative fashion. The cut opens with a re-reading of a newspaper article written after John Lennon's assassination, which Amos links to the original song's creation. "[Lennon] saw an ad for a gun," she says, "and he was murdered by a gun years later. It started to strike me that this was going to be a canvas, a backdrop for the fact that no changes have really been made [in gun control] that are effective." Other vocal samplings are included on the elongated track, which pushes the 10-minute mark. Amos's own father, Dr. Edison M. Amos, speaks on the right to bear arms, as does former President George Bush and his son George W. "I figured if I was doing a Bush father and son, I needed to do an Amos father and daughter," she remarks. The following track, "I Don't Like Mondays," is a companion song to its predecessor. This number also deals with gun-control issues and was originally based off an infamous San Diego shooting in 1979. Amos says the song "was sung from the point of view of the cop who went to the school that day, because I couldn't hold the essence of the person who went and killed everybody. I had to be able to hold something in a structure of women, or I couldn't be in the chair for them." Amos says that she wanted to give the song a "childlike effect... I didn't believe that this [convicted felon] was a 'bad seed.' So I wanted to create it in this sort of shattered playground world."
In regards to Tom Wait's "Time": "I thought about taking this to the organ, but I stripped it back... It's from the point of view of Death, so I felt like you need to feel like you are sitting on the piano stool. No masks, no effects, it's right here, dry, with a little compression on the vocals."
The tenor of Lloyd Cole's "Rattlesnakes" is wholly different; Amos strove for a desert feel and used a "Rhodes delay back and forth to create the tail of the rattlesnake." She tracked the song alone and calls it her personal favorite, but refuses to name a few anonymous pals who added extra overdubs to the cut.
As for 10cc's "I'm Not in Love," Amos says that she wanted it "to be almost like an ancient Japanese dance, like a ritual dance. So I stripped the keyboards off, and it became all about the vocal." Adrian Belew furthered the experimentation by using a drill along with his guitar.
Amos opted for "Heart of Gold" as her Neil Young interpretation, even though she personally favors other songs like "The Needle and the Damage Done" and "Cinnamon Girl." She chose "Heart of Gold" specifically because her view of the song differs greatly from the vision many men have relayed to her. Some males have told Amos that they see the subject, an understanding wife, as someone who can be cheated on without remorse; Amos presents the subject as an ideal partner, one not to be mistreated. "It's probably very difficult right now to find a heart of gold," she says.
The packaging and marketing campaign for Strange Little Girls features a dozen strikingly different photographs of Amos; in some cases, she's barely recognizable. With renowned photographer Thomas Schenk, Amos dressed up as the characters she allies herself with and shot a corresponding image for each one. Vicky Germaise, Senior VP of Marketing at Atlantic, tells ICE, "She actually was so inspired that each of the 12 songs has a different girl representing it, and they're wildly different characters." Four of these images will act as alternate covers for the new CD: "Time," "Strange Little Girls", "Raining Blood", and "Happiness is a Warm Gun." (The photograph on ICE's cover represents "I Don't Like Mondays.") [The article includes the photos for "New Age", "Real Men", and "Enjoy the Silence."]
Amos will appear on "The Late Show with David Letterman" on September 17, and perform solo across the U.S. from September 28 through November 21. Amos does not say for certain whether or not the new material will be included in her live sets, although she does promise, "Every night will be different. I'm working off 10 years of records."
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