Tori Amos

Strange Little Girls (Atlantic)

During a 1993 MTV special on Nirvana, Dave Grohl took a shot at Tori Amos' melodramatic, piano-ballad version of the band's breakthrough hit, "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Amos had surely intended the cover as a tribute, a way of letting those with refined tastes know that this unwashed Pacific Coast punk band actually possessed some musicianship. But to Grohl, Amos' record was a joke, good for only one thing: It worked as kitschy background music for the members of Nirvana to twirl onstage like flannel-wearing Baryshnikovs.

Amos' new record of covers invites that same kind of derision. Even at her best, Amos is tough to stomach, being that she's saddled with the most affected, gratingly portentous voice heard in pop music since the "Wuthering Heights" of her obvious role model, Kate Bush. Amos' breathless caterwauling is occasionally tolerable on her own material, where you figure that she's got good reason to sound so neurotic, even if you can't figure out what the hell that reason is. But when she's disemboweling 10cc's "I'm Not in Love" with a dreary drum-and-voice workout, her artsier-than-thou impulses are impossible to ignore.

Tori Amos: Insufferable covers girl.
Tori Amos: Insufferable covers girl.

You want to credit Amos on Strange Little Girls for having the nerve to take these songs apart and create something new. And, rather than using the Velvets' more obvious Loaded version of "New Age" as a blueprint, she uses lyrics that Lou Reed discarded after a few 1969 live appearances.

But admiring an artist's nerve isn't the same as deriving actual enjoyment from her work, and it's hard to imagine anyone enjoying more than three or four cuts off this slice of runaway ego. Her pseudo-funky deconstruction of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" would be an appalling low point, if not for the 10-minute hell ride that is "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" (and, between the Breeders and Marc Ribot, hasn't this song been massacred enough?). Burdening this track with snippets of grisly news reports and NRA mission statements probably sounded like a good idea on paper -- just like most of Amos' catalogue. But the results are laughably heavy-handed -- just like most of Amos' catalogue.

 
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