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Chicago Tribune (US)
Thursday, January 18, 1996



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

"Blood Roses"

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 thing."

Digging deep

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 patriarchal figure."

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 blow."

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 enough.

"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 whores."

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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