Boys for Pele
Kate Bush is the artist to whom Tori Amos is most often compared--usually in cynical accusations of aesthetic plagiarism and emotional fakery--but Jerry Lee Lewis makes a good, if not a better, parallel.
Like Lewis, Amos is the rebellious, piano-playing child of a conservative Southern minister. Like Lewis, Amos writes songs with an unrepentant erotic charge. And like Lewis, Amos goes into a sort of trance onstage and does, well, things to her piano. But whereas Jerry Lee kicked away his stool and sweated and lighted his keyboard on fire, Tori straddles her bench and sweats and writhes in ecstasy. On the surface, it looks exactly like she is making love to her music, or at least to her piano. But that discounts the possibility that standing naked, brave and beautiful before the eyes of the world just feels orgasmically good.
There is little question that Amos stands both naked and brave--her songs often put her own life under the scalpel and dissect it in disturbing detail. And there is no question that Amos is beautiful--for her cayenne hair and enchanting green eyes, but more so for her magically attenuated sensuality and sensitivity to life.
Many thousands of fans perceive Amos' albums as an intensely personal dialogue in which all the walls are down, and their secret friend Tori painfully lays bare her psyche for them to pick through. That her music makes a cathartic emotional connection with a mass audience is why Tori Amos is a star--that, and because she looks hot on MTV.
If you follow pop music at all, you know something about Tori Amos. You might know her as a classical prodigy turned spandex rocker who fronted an '80s L.A. metal band called Y Kant Tori Read. Or the chick with red hair and pale skin who sings about being raped ("Me and a Gun," from 1991's Little Earthquakes) and who plays a languid cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." You might even know she believes in fairies and practices witchcraft (that is, if you believe goddess worship is witchcraft, as the stake burners did). Probably, you know Tori Amos more for the sensationalism of her subject matter than for her exceptional musicianship and her voice of a siren.
On some level, you know about Amos, but unless you're one of those who feel like you actually know her as well, Boys for Pele is a good time to peel away from the tea party at Tori's house. If you don't feel like you're part of the circle, you had better leave. Now. Amos shows no signs of lightening the mood at her little gathering.
Her use of a harpsichord on several tracks--in place of her usual Bssendorfer piano--adds a medieval feel to the songs "Professional Widow" and "Blood Roses" that finally brings out the Gothic in Tori Amos. The former composition is driven by a combination of crashing chords and a strong drumbeat that recalls Amos' controversial hit "God" (from 1994's Under the Pink, her second major release) and contains the pull-quote lyric "Give me peace, love and a hard cock." The ominous colors of "Blood Roses" are a fitting backdrop for more of Amos' wounded eroticism: "You gave him your blood/Your warm little diamond."
The sparse, unsustained sound of her harpsichord strikes a medium between the expansive, swirling piano pieces and whispered a cappellas that have been her stock in trade. She learned to play the instrument specifically for this album (of course she would), and its addition to her limited arsenal represents one of two good instincts Amos followed on her first self-produced album. Her professional relationship with longtime producer/boyfriend Eric Rosse came to a close, along with her personal one, a little less than a year ago, and Amos is obviously testing her wings on her first solo flight. Her use of a gospel choir on "Way Down" (the first of the two songs on Pele whose lyrics are not printed in the liner notes) is a lush, pacifying blanket of soul, especially after hearing Amos declare, "Yes I am the anchor man/Dining here with Son of Sam" in a menacing vocal intro that lingers a minute before the warm heart of the song emerges.
Amos flies off-target, however, when she replaces the feedback tracers and heavily distorted guitar flourishes that accessorized her more experimental tracks on Under the Pink with horn and string sections. On Pele, they are forced fits and coat several tracks with overproduced syrup. Especially bad is, ironically (or, perhaps, predictably), the album's first single, "Caught a Lite Sneeze." It has Amos' piano buried under a pile of electronic swells and a lightly catchy beat. On "Sneeze," Amos also tosses out the album's worst example of what a Rolling Stone reviewer who recently trashed Pele termed "mushy-headed New Age feminispeak." "Boys on my right side/Boys in the middle," Amos sings. "I need a big loan from the girl zone."
Tee shirt, anyone?
"Our generation loves our pain," Amos once told Rolling Stone. "We like our pain. And we're packaging it, and we're selling it." Pain sells because pain feels good to listen to. "Putting the Damage On" may not be the best song on Pele, but it's the best Tori Amos song, a brutal vignette from a dying relationship.
Beyond tortured love affairs, Amos' father--and, by extension, patriarchy in general--plays easy target yet again on Pele (the subject is becoming a bit bullet-riddled): "Starfucker just like my daddy/Selling his baby/Gonna strike a deal/Make him feel like a congressman." Amos even takes Henry VIII to task on the horn-drenched "Talula." Several organized religions also get the usual--"Father Lucifer" is a sure Christian Coalition pleaser, and one hopes Amos considered Salman Rushdie before releasing "Muhammad My Friend."
At 70 minutes long, Boys for Pele is self-indulgent, but not to a fault. Tori Amos just had a lot to say this afternoon, much of it empowered-girl rap and stream-of-consciousness poetry with a charmingly female sensibility. Guys can listen in, but not so easily identify, and few of them will get the joke of the scandalous shot of a pig suckling Tori's breast amid the inside art. It's clear after listening to Pele that the boys Amos has in mind in her title are not some sort of booster club for the mythical fire goddess who inhabited the crater of Kilauea--a real volcano on the island of Hawaii--but the sacrificial fodder for her appeasement. Burn me, goddess.--David Holthouse