Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Distinct Tori - The Choirgirl Hotel Was A Good Place For Her To Stay

The Good: Some excellent poetics, Great voice, Decent lyrics
The Bad: Some difficult-to-understand vocals, Density of lyrics
The Basics: With strong vocals and excellent lyrics, Tori Amos presents and impressive and accessible album for all audiences with From The Choirgirl Hotel.

I have a good friend who is a lot more extroverted than I am, who tells me tidbits about pop culture that she believes I should know in order to get by in the world and with my reviews. She, for example, warned me about the virtual worship that has sprung up around Zach Braff for his film Garden State. She was also kind enough to warn me to be careful of what I say and how I review Tori Amos's work as something of a religion has sprouted up around her work. Fortunately, I did not need her warning. As my stock of Ella Fitzgerald discs wore down, my first Tori Amos discs have begun arriving, like Boys For Pele (reviewed here) and Midwinter Graces (reviewed here). As I delve into Tori Amos fully, I seem to be beginning around the middle of her career (thus far) with 1998's From The Choirgirl Hotel.

With its fourteen tracks clocking in at 57 minutes (though I always prefer longer in this medium!), From The Choirgirl Hotel is an auspicious outing with much to recommend it. One of the profound strengths of the album is that it serves as a foil to some of my recent reviews of indistinct albums (I've called one "Indistinct Etheridge," another "Indistinct Elton"); discs where I've played the disc on repeat and none of the tracks leap out as anything different . . . or distinct. On From The Choirgirl Hotel, each time "Black-Dove (January)" and "Jackie's Strength" come around, I'm stopped in my tracks and they demand my attention. So different are they from the other tracks on the album and anything else I have ever heard before!

Tori Amos is an exceptionally creative musician and singer-songwriter, writing and performing all twelve tracks on From The Choirgirl Hotel. As she was involved with a sound engineer at the time, it seems highly unlikely that she was not integral to producing the album in a way that pleased her, though she is not credited with a production credit on the album. For those who have not heard of Tori Amos, a distinct possibility in the U.S. as her best known mainstream hit ("Silent All These Years") hit almost fifteen years ago (man, time flies!), she is a musical artist most known for her lyrical talents and her performing her songs on piano (she precedes Fiona Apple).

From The Choirgirl Hotel defies the established sound of Tori Amos by presenting a musically rich experience. Amos plays piano, but many of the tracks are accompanied with production elements, guitars, keyboards, some drums, etc. The overall feeling is that this album is more conventional in the pop-rock sense in that it has a more full (slightly less intimate) sound. This makes it instantly more accessible to most palates as it is not do demanding in its stark presentation of Amos's lyrics. Songs like "She's Your Cocaine" sound like pop-rock tracks one might hear on the radio (were actual artists popular).

As a singer, Amos is gifted and while her mainstream nods have tended to be quiet, wispy ballads in the higher ranges, Amos has incredible ability to modulate her tone. On "Jackie's Strength," Amos makes musical leaps from the lower to higher registers that have not been hear since Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights." Amos beautifully leaps up over the two lines, ". . . What black magic can do / Make me laugh . . ." in that song that stops me in my tracks each time.

Tori Amos is a gifted and expressive lyricist and songs on From The Choirgirl Hotel are genuinely well-written. There is no one writing with quite the same poetics as Amos. For example, on "Black-Dove (January)," she writes and sings, "She had a January world / So many storms not right somehow / How lion becomes a mouse / By the woods . . . She has a January girl / She never let on how insane it was / In that tiny kinda scary house / By the woods . . ." She vividly creates lines that are poetic, tell a story or wonderfully convey an emotion. The subject of "Black Dove (January)" is very vivid on the page and in the song. "She's Your Cocaine" is expressive and articulate - and very hip sounding - in its exploration of an abusive relationship.

This is not to say that Amos is completely comprehensible. Her perfectly titled "I i e e e" is beautifully written, but as I sit reading the lyrics, I've no idea what she's trying to say. She has wonderful lines like "We scream in cathedrals [Amazing line!] / Why can't it be beautiful / Why does there / Gotta be a sacrifice / Just say yes / You little arsonist . . . With your E's / And your ease / And I do one more / Well I know we're dying . . ." but I've no idea what she's trying to express when those lines are put together.

It doesn't help with the music that accompanies that song; "I i e e e " is just noisy. There is a chaotic quality to it with the backing instrumentals simply being a cacophony of sound as opposed to something genuinely musical. Most of the album is melodic ("Northern Lad" is a beautifully orchestrated piano and vocal track) and listenable, but one or two tracks just grate.

From The Choirgirl Hotel is easily accessible to anyone who likes pop-rock music and will be enjoyed by virtually anyone who likes a strong female artist. This outing of Tori Amos's is direct and impressive, demanding the attention of the listener and rewarding the listener with a musical experience that is enjoyable, yet requires some interpretation.

This was my first Tori Amos album and it will not be my last; I'm looking forward to my next one!

I remain most impressed by "Jackie's Strength" and find "I i e e e" to be the weak track.

For other, former, Artist Of The Month reviews of mine, please be sure to check out my takes on:
The Jerome Kern Songbook - Ella Fitzgerald
@#%&*! Smilers - Aimee Mann
My Love: Ultimate Essential Collection - Celine Dion


For other music reviews, please be sure to visit my Music Review Index Page with an organized listing of all the different albums and singles I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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