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Vox (UK)
June 1998

"Tough Kooky"

From The Choirgirl Hotel (eastwest)

Back with a band and her best-ever album.

Tori Amos has paid a high price for whatever artistic credibility she's managed to accrue. First rape and then, more recently, a miscarriage, which she describes as the "egg" that gave birth to her latest and best album to date. It's bad enough having to go through that sort of misery just to avoid being dubbed a pop charlatan, but even after all this, Tori Amos is reviled by some.

Perhaps that's because she's a paradoxical bundle - or, as the last song on this album has it, a Pandora's Aquarium. She's intense, too much so for the easily embarrassed English at times, yet deflects it with a kooky, mordant wit. She's sensual, yet capable of angry revulsion. She's a paradigm of strong, self-determined womanhood, yet at times has seemed happy to be sold as a commodity to get her music across. Take a single song on this LP - say, "Northern Lad" - and watch the contradictory qualities of tenderness, dry irony, passionate longing and rage all come out at once, the vocals twisting sharp and broad like an angled blade.

What ought to be beyond doubt is that Tori is an accomplished musician, supremely able to give vent to the complexity of her emotions through the intricacy and intimacy of her sound. Here, however, she's brought in a band, including Beck's bassist, Justin Medal-Johnsen. It's like she's gone public. But what could be merely a compromise, a fuller sound for no other sake than to soften the raw intensity of herself alone, is a triumph - eloquently, darkly hip.

"Spark", the opener with it's latticed, exotic rhythms, goes down like a spiked drink in a strange country. "Cruel" is where the recent autobiography kicks in, as Tori spits sardonically about "celebrating your top 10 in the charts" - her recent Number One put in perspective by personal events, perhaps?

"Black-Dove (January)" and "Raspberry Swirl" are similarly traumatised, but this time there's no simple and direct route to the heart of these songs, with the band setting up thickets of rhythms to negotiate, a luscious, nightmarish forest that you have to hack your way through.

The is consolatory respite in the form of "Jackie's Strength", a song that collapses softly back into an orchestral net of solace. But then there's "iieee", in which the sense of having been 'made' to sacrifice her unborn child is eerily played out over what sound like the pagan rhythms of some ancient ritual to appease wrathful gosds. Pertubing. "She's Your Cocaine" works itself up into a similarly delirious state, the band rocking as if in some oxygen-free, low-ceiling basement.

The relationship between these songs and Tori's tragedy isn't always a clear-cut one - take "Playboy Mommy" for example, whose seedy honky-tonk showcases the story of a Mom who had her kid too soon, agrees she may have been 'never there when it counted', but finally resents the stigma attached to her. This is a faraway point from the anguished meditations that ignited the album in the first place, but not completely disconnected.

Strangely, Tori has never sounded quite so reconciled with herself as on this album, as if gladly embracing the light and dark, soft and hard, happy and sad of things with a newfound stoicism. She's learned to handle it. You can certainly handle this. ****** out of ****** (Dave Stubbs)

~ ~ ~

Tori Tells It Like It Is

How did you start to work through your feelings at having suffered a miscarriage in the writing of this album?

"The thing I found was that the love didn't go away from this being. And even though this being didn't come, it's not like it didn't have an effect on my life. Because it's not in the 'physical' it's hard to say it was 'real,' but this being taught me so many feelings I didn't even know I had. There was an appreciation of life, for one. The miracle of life, something I really felt when I first found I was pregnant. So all those feelings came to me as well as a lot of questions.

"For instance, being in American malls, seeing the way parents hit their kids all the time. I mean, really hitting their kids. You start asking, why are some people allowed to become parents and some not... I began questioning God, thinking, if you call yourself a God, you ought to be able to answer some of those questions. But I didn't get any answers, not from that source anyway. But the songs started coming."

Was the reference to celebrating your Top Ten in the charts an ironic sideswipe at the "Professional Widow" remix?

"No, it's about when you hear people listing their griefs, it can be become a bit like a Billboard chart. "Hey, only your uncle abused you? I had 17 sailors and then my uncle!" That's what that was about.. I get a lot of letters from girls who don't talk about what happened to them because they feel they have no right to speak up. So they become victims anonymous."

And yet for all that you've been through, there's a pretty joyous, rock 'n' roll feel to this album.

"Yeah, that's really good. It surprises me. I listen to this album and I smile. It happened and I didn't know it. I found a way to dance with sorrow."

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