Friday, March 23, 2012

Boys For Pele: Average Tori Amos Is Still Adequate Tori Amos (My April Artist Of The Month Comes Early!)

The Good: Sound of voice, Lyrics, Instrumental accents
The Bad: Style of vocals (often inarticulate), Musically dull for the most part.
The Basics: A good, but not great, album, Tori Amos mumbles her way past her own worthwhile poetry on Boys For Pele.

A number of Tori Amos fans I have talked with have told me that Amos is like Bjork: you either love or hate her works*. I am happy to stand in defiance of that absolutism and write from a middle ground that seems to baffle some of the Tori Amos fans I've discussed this with. I am a fan of the lyrics of Tori Amos and I am impressed by her vocal talents as far as range goes. However, I've never been impressed by how she (doesn't) articulates her message and lyrics and how many of her songs are limited to her piano instrumentally, which gets tiresome after a few albums. In fact, I have enjoyed most of her albums, though her recent Midwinter Graces (reviewed here!) did not impress me.

On the balance, though, I like the works of Tori Amos, I like her social activism, too, and I liked Boys For Pele. Boys For Pele was the album Amos released following her widest commercial success with Little Earthquakes and is an album that continues to illustrate the best and worst of Tori Amos. In other words, there are great lyrics, which are mumbled out at beautifully high soprano tones, while Amos plays all sorts of pianos with accents by other instruments. It's good, but it's not great.

With eighteen songs clocking in at 70:34, Boys For Pele is very much the musical vision and sensibility of singer-songwriter Tori Amos. Amos wrote all of the music and lyrics for Boys For Pele. She provides all of the primary vocals and plays four different types of piano/organ instruments on the various tracks. As well, she is credited as a producer on the album and so it is hard to argue that Amos didn't get the album she wanted with this recording.

And largely, it is good. Amos establishes herself with a great sense of presentation with "Horses" contrasting her high soprano voice with deep piano chords. She actually enunciates on the song and so it is disarmingly clear when the album begins. Unfortunately, though, Amos soon departs from that vocal clarity, keeping her pitch perfect, but mumbling at the top of her range. This is disappointing because Tori Amos is a musical artist who has something to say.

In fact, Amos's lyrics make Boys For Pele. She sings an amazing range of storysongs in a folk rock tradition - lyrically - with her own unique, almost Gospel or classical, sound for her music. She has a number of songs exploring spirituality and mythology ("Father Lucifer," "Muhammad My Friend") as well as songs that explore more universal notions, like loss and agnosticism. Take, for example, "Blood Roses," where Amos writes, "God knows I know / I've thrown away those graces / The Belle of New Orleans tried to show me / Once how to tango / Wrapped around you feet / Wrapped around like good little roses / Blood Roses / Blood Roses / Back on the street now . . . Now you've cut out the flute / From the throat of the loon / At least when you cry now / He can't even hear you . . ." Amos has a lyrical sensibility that is very dark, moody and emotional in a way that is also picturesque. Amos has an amazing sense of imagery in her lyrics, as well as a powerful ability to emote.

But reading the lines from Boys For Pele works out often better than listening to the album, not because Amos is a poor musician or vocalist, but rather because there is an incongruent quality between Amos' lines and her presentation of them. So, for example, it is clear Tori Amos had something to say when she wrote the lines "Sometimes I breathe you in / And I know you know / And sometimes you take a swim / Found your writing on my wall / If my heart's soaking wet / Boy your boots can leave a mess / Hey Jupiter / Nothing's been the same / So are you gay / Are you blue / Thought we both could use a friend / To run to / And I thought I wouldn't have to keep / With you / Hiding" ("Hey Jupiter"). In fact, the whole idea of "coming out" is seldom tackled in pop-rock music, but Amos garbles her message by presenting it in a way that is almost inaudible. From presenting magnificently high tones to mumbling through the lyrics or unnaturally stretching notes at awkward points in words out, it's a tough sell.

Occasionally, her pitch plays well with the lyrics. On the "Doughnut Song," Amos expresses "You told me last night / You were a sun now with your very own / Devoted satellite / Happy for you / And I am sure that I hate you / Two sons too many too many able fires / And if I'm wasting all you time / This time / I think you never learned to take / And if I'm hanging on to your shade / I guess I'm way beyond the pale" with an energy and ability that creates a very palpable sense of loss.

And regardless of anything else, Tori Amos can sing! Her problem is not with ability, it's with enunciation. She has a breathy quality that holds up poorly over multiple listens; like she has something against singing clearly and articulately and it is irritating considering she clearly has something to say.

Musically, Tori Amos is good, but there are already bits that are frustratingly derivative. It took three listens to the album that I realized that the reason "Mr. Zebra" was bothering me was that there are a number of musical and lyrical congruencies between the Queen song "Killer Queen." For someone so creative, it is disappointing that she presents something that already sounds so much like another, well-established, musical artist.

Other than that, though, Amos is quite amazing. She mixes the "lone woman on a piano" sound well with things like trumpet accents on bass chords on some of the later tracks on the album, mixing it up after the very archetypal "woman on a piano" sound of "Muhammad My Friend." She has ability and when she does mix it up on Boys For Pele it works well to further illustrate her talent and creativity.

Ultimately, it is that creativity that makes Boys For Pele worth listening to; Amos doesn't sound like most anyone else for the bulk of the album and when she can be understood, she does have something worthwhile or interesting to say. Boys For Pele is likely to satisfy anyone looking for something mellow and different in the pop-rock spectrum.

The best song is "Father Lucifer," the low point of the album is "Agent Orange" (too short!).

For other albums by strong female artists, please check out my reviews of:
South - Heather Nova
Wilderness - Sophie B. Hawkins
The Beauty Of The Rain - Dar Williams

*I easily and happily fall into the "hate it" category for the works of Bjork!


For other music reviews, please check out my music review index page by clicking here!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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