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Tori Amos

+ {Ellen Amos} + {Y Kant Tori Read}

From precocious piano-playing prodigy to grandiose singer-songwriter, the confrontational and oft-misunderstood TORI AMOS led the way (from the 90s onwards) for feisty females such as ALANIS MORISSETTE and SHERYL CROW, who’d more to say than MADONNA and a line of subsequent ten-a-penny lap-dance pop stars. Of course, one couldn’t dismiss the fact that Tori’s kooky sound and style had once been the domain of a certain KATE BUSH, but AMOS’s “kick inside” was decidedly concert-friendly – a thing that her reluctant and reclusive idol could not administer due to stage fright.
Born Myra Ellen Amos, August 22, 1963 in Newton, North Carolina, Tori was the daughter of a Methodist preacher father and part-Cherokee Indian mother, who raised her in the deep south state of Maryland. Incredibly, Tori earned a scholarship to Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory at the age of five (the youngest ever admission!), studying classical piano. Parting company with this illustrious establishment at the age of eleven (rock & roll already in her veins through ‘Zeppelin, et al), AMOS embarked upon her rebellious phase, playing bars and subsequently relocating to L.A. where she was discovered by early 80s sophisto-disco star, Narada Michael Walden.
Despite recording some professional demos and releasing a one-off independently-released 45, `Baltimore’ (as Ellen Amos), it would be several years down the line before her career really began.
Reinventing herself as Tori, AMOS eventually re-emerged as lead singer with gaudy glitz-metal band, Y Kant Tori Read. Also notable for featuring guitarist Steve Farris (from MR. MISTER) and future GUNS N’ ROSES drummer Matt Sorum, the outfit eventually signed to Atlantic Records, who released their dodgy eponymous Y KANT TORI READ {*3} album in 1988. Almost universally lambasted by the critics, Tori underwent a considerably more horrific ordeal when she was raped at gunpoint by a would-be fan after offering him a lift home; this experience was duly detailed in the song, `Me And A Gun’. To make ends meet, she worked as a backing session singer, appearing on late-80s albums such as AL STEWART’s `Last Days Of The Century’ and STAN RIDGWAY’s `Mosquitos’.
Making the transition from leather-clad front-woman to soul searching singer-songwriter, TORI AMOS “moved along the corridor” to the East West splinter for the delivery of her solo debut, LITTLE EARTHQUAKES (1992) {*9}. Breaking initially in Britain, the album’s deep subject matter and orchestrated, piano-led atmospherics were the backdrop for AMOS’s eye-of-the-hurricane emotional turmoil; from heavy-lidded lullaby to howling, KATE BUSH-esque melodrama, the singer exorcised her demons in compelling fashion. Tracks such as `Silent All These Years’, `China’, `Winter’ and `Crucify’ (all UK hit singles in their own right), plus of course, `Me And A Gun’, saw the album eventually climb the American charts; it has since become regarded as one of the all-time classic rock-pop records.
AMOS’s career trajectory was given a turbo boost in the first days of 1994 with the strangely-titled `Cornflake Girl’, a Top 5 Brit hit which helped propel her accompanying sophomore album, UNDER THE PINK {*8} to the top of the UK charts (Top 20 in her homeland). A more probing exploration of the female psyche, the album attempted to reconcile Tori’s religious upbringing and developing identity with songs such as `Past The Mission’ (featuring NINE INCH NAIL’s Trent Reznor), `God’ and `Pretty Good Year’ – her second Top 10 hit in Old Blighty.
In early ‘96, AMOS released her most commercially successful album to date, BOYS FOR PELE {*8}, a set that narrowly missed the top slot in both Britain and America despite its overtly experimental nature. Based around the myths of Egyptian gods of Isis and Osiris, and named after a Hawaiian goddess and not the legendary soccer star, the record was stripped back bare to its skeletal band-meets-solo piano mix. Once again it was a record that was littered with classy hit singles (albeit with oblique lyrics); `Caught A Lite Sneeze’, `Talula’ and double A-side `Hey Jupiter’ / `Professional Widow’. The latter re-titled track (as `Professional Widow (It’s Got To Be Big)’) – allegedly written about the death of Kurt Cobain and its controversial aftermath – was subsequently deconstructed in stunning style from its more subdued album counterpart, dance guru Armand Van Helden possibly inspired by BT/Brian Transeau’s impressive use/sample of Tori’s voice on his Top 30 hit, “Blue Skies”. The remix scaled the British charts early the following year, exposing AMOS’s uniquely challenging work to a whole new E-poppin’ audience.
On February 22, 1998, Tori married Mark Hawley, the engineer on her previous two albums. Her new hubby also worked on a mooted fourth set, tentatively-titled FROM THE CHOIRGIRL HOTEL {*7}. When released that spring, the record shifted enough units to hit the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic, subsequently bringing further well-deserved acclaim to this eclectic but troubled lady; Jools Holland and his BBC2 TV programme, Later With…, intensified her complex image with a ubiquitous piano-playing performances (on the hit `Spark’, `Cruel’ and `Black-Dove (January)’) that could’ve even put RICK WAKEMAN to shame. The piano was duly re-installed as a rock’n’roll instrument.
Just over a year later, AMOS followed this with a double-set helping TO VENUS AND BACK (1999) {*6}, which fused live re-workings with fresh studio outings; `Glory Of The 80’s’ its only minor UK hit.
It might’ve been the new millennium but come 2001, AMOS was not exactly doing anything new. Well, not unless you regard covers set (as in entire covers set), STRANGE LITTLE GIRLS (2001) {*4}, as breaking new ground. Constructed around a paper-thin theme of recapturing the female perspective of songs originally sung about women by men, the record straddled the musical map from NEIL YOUNG (`Heart Of Gold’) to SLAYER (`Raining Blood’), reaching the UK Top 20 and, surprisingly, the US Top 5; others came by way of The VELVET UNDERGROUND (`New Age’), EMINEM (`’97 Bonnie & Clyde’), The STRANGLERS (`Strange Little Girl’), DEPECHE MODE (`Enjoy The Silence’), 10CC (`I’m Not In Love’), LLOYD COLE & THE COMMOTIONS (`Rattlesnakes’), TOM WAITS (`Time’), The BOOMTOWN RATS (`I Don’t Like Mondays’) / The BEATLES (`Happiness Is A Warm Gun’) and JOE JACKSON (`Real Men’).
Over the years, Tori covered the likes of `Smells Like Teen Spirit’ (NIRVANA), `Ring My Bell’ (Anita Ward), `Angie’ (The ROLLING STONES), `Thank You’ (LED ZEPPELIN), `This Old Man’ + Little Drummer Boy’ + `Home On The Range’ + `Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ (trad), `That’s What I Like Mick (The Sandwich Song)’ + `London Girls’ (CHAS & DAVE), `Do It Again’ (STEELY DAN), `If Six Was Nine’ (JIMI HENDRIX), `Strange Fruit’ (Billie Holliday) and `Famous Blue Raincoat’ (LEONARD COHEN).
While it’s unlikely that any TORI AMOS album will ever be described as easily digestible, SCARLET’S WALK (2002) {*6} was a tentative return to the cryptic, guardedly accessible alternative pop she excelled at in the early 90s. It also marked her inaugural appearance for Epic Records, although her British fanbase had dwindled somewhat despite precious hit, `A Sorta Fairytale’.
In the same year that KATE BUSH left critics drooling with cyclical reverie (“Aerial”), a newly 40-something AMOS also looked to nature – specifically the psychoanalytical minefield of a garden – as metaphor for emotional transition on THE BEEKEEPER (2005) {*6}, another US Top 5/UK Top 30 success. A record full of the myth and windswept Celtic-isms of her adopted home, Cornwall (and in `Jamaica Inn’, even referencing a Daphne Du Maurier novel), it also – on the likes of `Witness’ and the slinky `Hoochie Woman’ – unshackled AMOS’ funk-hear it to believe it!
Resurrecting feminine gods from Roman and Greek legends in a similar fashion to her “Boys For Pele” set from just over a decade past, AMERICAN DOLL POSSE (2007) {*6}, was Tori at her schizoid/alter-ego best as she took on the roles of five archetypal figures. Dressed up like some harlots from the past – and present – she devised fantastical songs that would suit each and every one of her characters; from Pip and Clyde to Santa and Isabel (and herself). Ambitious to say the least, the near-80-minute, 23-song adventure was best served by `Big Wheel’, `Almost Rosey’, `Teenage Hustling’ and `Body And Soul’.
Always intent on delivering double-length sets rather than splitting them into two – or better still, one with redundant outtakes – ABNORMALLY ATTRACTED TO SIN (2009) {*5}, failed in its back-to-basics simplicity. `Maybe California’, `Strong Black Vine’ (very “Kashmir”) and `That Guy’, were yearning and rainy day dirges for stick-in-the-mud fans willing to spend time getting to know who she was this time around. Probably Carol was an appropriate name as she duly took on the seasonal and festive MIDWINTER GRACES (2009) {*4}, an extra piece to buy around Xmas time; and yes, it proved, her voice could adapt to most traditional songs. But one thought she was anti-religious?
Swapping alt-pop for classical crossover, NIGHT OF HUNTERS (2011) {*7} was Tori’s next genre of choice. Coming across like an elfin JOANNA NEWSOM and thankfully not ELVIS COSTELLO (who’d also ventured into conceptual classical works), the ginger goddess took her inspiration from Bach, Satie, Debussy, Mussorgsky, et al, while Alkan and Granados had respectfully influenced `The Shattering Sea’ and `Snowblind’. Augmented by the Apollon Musagete Quartet and arranger John Philip Shenale, the Deutsche Grammaphon record was as delicate as it was searching.
Fast-forward a year, GOLD DUST (2012) {*6} celebrated the 20th anniversary of her debut set, although this disc was stimulated by a previous concert (two years ago) alongside the Metropole Orchestra conducted by James Buckley. Retrospective but with a symphonic, theatrical twist, Tori fans were in for an interesting listen as she performed barbed beauties such as `Winter’, `Silent All These Years’, `Girl Disappearing’ etc.
With broody rival KATE BUSH garnering much attention for bravely going where other angels have always tread – on the boards, workaholic in comparison, TORI AMOS weighed in with her umpteenth set, UNREPENTANT GERALDINES (2014) {*7}. Clocking in at a hefty hour long, the solipsistic protagonist rewarded her listeners, sculpting and seducing her loyal audience with gems such as `America’, `Trouble’s Lament’, `16 Shades Of Blue’ and the epic title track. Now over 25 years in the business, Tori’s liberation from her demons has been an example to other sweetness-and-light pop artists unwilling to search out their inner soul for inspiration.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Jun2014

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