To Venus and Back
First Appeared at The Music Box, December 1999, Volume 6, #12
Written by Michael Karpinski
For at least a handful of Tori Amos fans, the question will always be: Y Kan't Tori keep remaking Little Earthquakes — the 1991 record/revelation on which the henna-haired hellcat conclusively cast her pouffy-‘do'd Pat Benatar pretensions to the wind and produced an epiphany-rich, piano-and-strings-driven masterpiece. Whether pounding her piano to a pulp or just barely breathing on its keys, Amos displayed a breathtaking range of melody and mood — from the empowering openers Crucify, Girl, and Silent All These Years to the music-box-melancholic, rain-on-the-windowpane-nostalgic Winter and Mother to the disconcertingly intimate Me and a Gun. By album's end, Amos had permanently laid to rest any as-yet-undispelled memories from her ill-suited, over-produced 1988 debut, coldly incanting over the closing track's apocalyptic, Little Drummer Boy rumblings:
Give me life
Give me pain
Give me myself again.
* * * *
Having finally found her creative feet, Amos next set about perfecting what would quickly become her trademark trick: pulling the rug out from under them. Her 1994 Under The Pink album would be no mere Earthquakes aftershock; it would have a sound and a soul all its own. The songs' edges were sharper; the footholds fewer and less forgiving; and the lyrics, well, let's just say: The lyrics got weirder. Essentially a series of oblique soliloquies, Under the Pink reveled in its own relentless eclecticism — fusing the soufflé-fragile Baker Baker with the "how-many-clowns-can-you-fit-in-a-phone-booth?" calliope accoutrements of The Wrong Band and wedding the venomous The Waitress to the jaunty call to non-conformity Cornflake Girl — one of a half-dozen of Amos' signature songs.
Come along now, little darlin'
Come along now with me...
...Amos playfully prompted on the nine-and-a-half minute closing opus Yes, Anastasia...
We'll see how brave you are
We'll see how fast you'll be running....
* * * *
Indeed, a certain reserve of blind faith and bravery would prove all-but-essential when delving into Amos' next schizophrenically scattershot song-cycle. If Little Earthquakes stripped her to the skin — and Under the Pink to the bone — then 1996's Boys for Pele slashed straight to the singer's psyche. With bells, whistles, and other extraneous effluvia largely eschewed, Pele shined a white-hot, oft-times uncomfortably claustrophobic spotlight on Amos and her beloved Bösendorfer, leaving the listener with the queasy sensation of being attached at the tongue to a Turette's Syndrome-suffering Siamese twin. Which is to say: The lyrics got even weirder. While her Earthquakes-era couplets, when not spot-on inspired, were never less than hypnotically provocative, Amos' lyrical weavings on Boys for Pele leaned perilously toward the precious. Suddenly, Fig Newtons and tuna were competing with zebras and weasels for nursery-rhyme remote, non-sequitur supremacy, and Mr. Sulu and Judas were time-sharing with Moses and Mohammed (both the prophet and the pugilist).
* * * *
If Boys for Pele represented yet another effort at cleansing exorcism, then 1998's comparatively unquirky From the Choirgirl Hotel saw Amos checking back into the Raisin Girl Zeitgeist by supplementing her siren-song sound with a tight, traditionally-arrayed backing band. Its arrangements sporting a welcome heft, Choirgirl found Amos reigning in some of her more hysterically esoteric instincts while still successfully straddling the stylistic extremes of, for instance, Raspberry Swirl — a deliciously throbbing romp reeking of damply enjoined genitalia — and Northern Lad — a bittersweet ballad evoking some of the same ache that Joni Mitchell mined in A Case of You. In Northern Lad, Amos also seemed to acknowledge — though certainly not apologize for — her preceding release's often mystifying minimalism:
Girls, you've got to know
When it's time to turn the page...
I guess you go too far
When pianos try to be guitars.
* * * *
Which brings us, finally, to 1999 and To Venus and Back, Amos' fifth and final disc of the century (or, more accurately, her fifth and sixth discs, as To Venus and Back comes packed to the rafters with 11 new studio tracks and 13 live tunes from Amos' '98 Plugged Tour). Kicking things off with its synthesized tsunami swells and sublimely simple minor-key piano-figure, Bliss quickly skips into an upbeat, oh-so-typically-Tori chorus (complete with a Señor Wences-precious pronunciation of the title word). From there, the album unspools as a series of woozy grooves, establishing itself as a not-altogether-illegitimate sibling of Madonna's Ray of Light. Like that 1998 release, Amos' latest is much more about feel and flow than it is about songs and singles, and both share a certain tuggingly irresistible undertow. Headphones are highly recommended, for only through such an immediate medium can such subtle cuts like Lush (with its asylum oubliette echoes) and Josephine (which evokes a homesick Napoleon marching heartbroken and horny into the winter of his discontent) be fully appreciated in all their aural glory. Elsewhere, Concertina coasts on its sweetly insistent synthesizer-line, and 1000 Oceans (or, for all practical purposes, Josephine: Part Deux) is either one of the most refreshingly straight-forward ballads Amos has ever wrapped her habitually sibilant lips around or a song so god-awful mawkish even Celine Dion wouldn't be caught dead covering it. Some things, only time can decide.
If To Venus and Back's first disc sometimes seems too low-key and non-confrontational for its own good, disc two commits the opposite sin. Clocking in at nearly six minutes each and loaded with bloated codas, the songs here are constantly crossing that thread-thin line between intensely-felt transfiguration and just plain trilling overkill. Indeed, in live performance, Amos has long compensated for her inability to reproduce her lushly-layered backing vocals by creating an almost umbilical intimacy with her Tori-adoring denizens and by championing an almost pornographic style of piano-playing — writhing and gyrating as though her stool were a glowing stove set to "SCORCH." Of course, that physical intimacy and visible, erotic energy are lost to the house-bound listener, leaving only the music to carry the torrid torch. While some songs succeed (Precious Things, Sugar), others merely pummel our patience (Cruel, Waitress). But even at her less-than-best, Amos still proves herself quite capable at finding diamonds in dross, as her full-band refurnishings of Space Dog, with its scat-fractured piano and relentless Peter Gunn-bass-line, and Bells for Her, whose Exorcist-sinister piano and sparsely spooky guitar effectively transform a hauntingly-embalmed hymn into a full-blooded frightfest (hell, after a while, even the maracas begin to sound unsettlingly malevolent) — ably attest.
Tori Amos is the first to admit that her music is an acquired taste — "anchovies," as opposed to "potato chips." And, yes, she can certainly be one spooky chanteuse. Whether she's suckling pot-bellied pigs, cavorting with constrictors, or fraternizing with Faeries, the woman has an almost uncanny knack for insinuating herself just inches under the status quo's collectively prickly skin. Now — with a new century impatiently waiting in the wings — there may be no more appropriate a moment to reflect that, not so many centuries ago, a presence as vexingly bedeviling as Tori Amos would have been publicly shunned; locked in stocks; purged by pyre. Indeed, in hindsight, it is semi-tempting to speculate that the blazing scarlet "A" Nathaniel Hawthorne saw fit to stitch to his most infamous heroine may have, in fact, stood for something never before suspected — not a 17th-century sin but a 20th-century surname — and that it was borne not as a symbol of shame but as a blood-red reminder of the necessity of expressing one's art with uncompromising honesty and living one's life forever unrepentant and unafraid, one exorcism to the next.
To Venus and Back is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 1999 The Music Box