From the Choirgirl Hotel
It's easy enough to understand the cult of Tori Amos. In an era dominated by literal-minded rockers in baseball caps and baggy shorts, she dares to plunge into the mystic, to use songwriting as a vehicle for escape from mundane reality into a world of fairies and mythological gods.
But understanding the cult is one thing. Buying into it is another. Too much of the time, Amos has come off as a Kate Bush with just enough American vulgarity to make her seem hip in the louder-than-smart '90s. Even more than Bush, she's developed a dramatic, pseudo-operatic croon so loaded with self-worshiping affectation that even her darkest songs invite laughter. Sure, she's connected with the occasional inspired track (like the tough-minded singles "God" or "Crucify"), but her albums have generally been endurance contests in which the listener always loses.
Well, maybe I'm under the influence of some potent fairy dust, but Amos' fourth solo album, From the Choirgirl Hotel, sounds like a leap forward for this chronically over-the-top artiste. Superficially, the album is no major departure from Amos' m.o., and there are still moments--as on the big vocal flourish of "Northern Lad"--when the results sound like Jim Steinman's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" as performed by Enya, but more and more, this piano troubadour sounds like an artist who's developed a sound and sensibility all her own, a songwriter for whom normal rules happily don't apply.
At her best, Amos doesn't drift off into the spiritual ether, but prefers to pull mythological figures down to earth, where they have to play on her home turf. In 1994, with "God," she reduced the almighty deity to an underachiever in need of female care. On the new album's abrasively funky "She's Your Cocaine," the devil is similarly depicted as a hapless dim bulb who's become some woman's lap dog. On this track (which owes some rhythmic debt to Fiona Apple's hit "Criminal"), Amos' voice is pinched and distorted until she sounds scarier than any prince of darkness could ever be, the epitome of raging hormonal possession.
Clearly, addiction is what fascinates Amos--whether it's addiction to chemicals, sex, food, religion or love. It's no accident that the first line she sings on the album (from the hauntingly beautiful single "Spark") is "She's addicted to nicotine patches." In the second verse, the song suddenly becomes a lament for the baby Amos miscarried two years ago ("She's convinced she could hold back a glacier/But she couldn't keep Baby alive"), unleashing the religious ambivalence that always bubbles under the surface of her songs: "If the Divine master plan is perfection/Maybe next I'll give Judas a try."
Amos' compulsion to uncover the erotic side of spirituality not only balances her flightier conceits (the Jacqueline Onassis homage on "Jackie's Strength"), but has also encouraged a sonic fearlessness that reaches full flower on this album. The ambient, percussion-powered "Cruel" says much with few words--a rare trick for Amos--and "Playboy Mommy" deftly employs a country pedal-steel guitar to underline the moral complexity of its protagonist. Best of all, "Liquid Diamonds" rides its echoed-out drum programs to moments of melodic majesty.
Even with such highlights, Amos' school-poetry preciousness can wear thin over the course of a 54-minute album. But From the Choirgirl Hotel offers enough gems to suggest that she's beginning to justify her cult.
The Loud Family
Days for Days
Modern rock is well-stocked with Best Kept Secrets, but even for this field there's something oddly elusive about The Loud Family. The band's new CD Days for Days is probably vocalist-writer-guitarist-producer Scott Miller's most accessible music since 1986's Big Shot Chronicles, the album by Miller's earlier Bay Area band Game Theory that should have made him as big a favorite with the masses as with critics.
Despite clear evidence of soaking in the Beatles and Big Star, Miller is no mere pop revivalist. His work fortunately avoids the three-minute glucose-tolerance level of many power-pop bands, with whom the Louds share at least some affinity. (Maybe that explains Game Theory's otherwise unaccountable absence from Rhino's Poptopia trilogy.) But if the music is tuneful, it's also challenging. Seemingly without commercial calculation, Miller sounds committed to fearlessly walking a tightrope between hook-laden romantic angst-pop and brief but funny-painful excursions into Stockhausen territory.
Miller's fans shake heads in wonder that The Loud Family's barely dented the charts. His more fanatical devotees feel he's recorded the equivalent of a couple of Abbey Roads and a This Year's Model or two without getting much of the acclaim he's due. Loud fans who play spot-the-influence are prone to cite Yeats, Kubrick or software arcana as often as the Byrds or Elvis Costello.
All of which tends to scare normal people away, expecting the Difficult Listening Hour. While Miller & Co. offer some difficult minutes, they combine the noise fests with often delicate melodies that oddly enough don't sound out of place. Game Theory was doing crunchy tuneful goodness long before Nirvana, the Pumpkins or Radiohead made it cool.
As part of Miller's apparent millennium-spanning plan to alternate near-symphonic mindbenders like 1987's Lolita Nation and last year's Interbabe Concern with discs that are more or less bunches of songs, Days for Days is relatively straightforward, for this outfit at least. It features keyboard highlights with a nod toward Ben Folds Five, bite-size instrumental interludes, and wise-guy song titles like "Cortex the Killer" and "Why We Don't Live in Mauritania." The catchy, riff-heavy "Deee-Pression" certainly sounds like the single we'll be lucky to hear on the air, though for me the highlight is the surrealistically wistful "Good, There Are No Lions in the Street." Once again, the listener is left with the impression that Miller could write hits if he only dumbed it down, and admiration at his refusal to do so.
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