Monday, April 16, 2012

I Might Not Understand Half The Lyrics, But Scarlet’s Walk Is Still A Perfect Album!

The Good: Great vocals, Decent lyrics, Musically and instrumentally interesting, Duration.
The Bad: None of significance (Minor slurring on some of the lyrics)
The Basics: Tori Amos manages to pull off what my preferred artist - Sophie B. Hawkins - has not yet managed with a perfect album with Scarlet’s Walk!

Today I find myself considering the body of my music reviews and finding myself somewhat troubled. There are very few perfect albums in my estimation and I try to reserve my five-star reviews for the perfect albums. I'm feeling strange, though, because after a dozen listens to Scarlet’s Walk, I am happy to proclaim it a perfect album. The weirdness comes in my not having enjoyed most of Tori Amos's albums before now and my mind wandering to Timbre (reviewed here!) by Sophie B. Hawkins. Hawkins is one of my favorite musical artists and Timbre was the closest she came to a perfect album (I still can't forgive the album for "Mmm My Best Friend!").

So, it is admittedly odd for me to be so eager to recommend Scarlet’s Walk, even though it is superior to Timbre if for no other reason than it does not have any flawed tracks. Scarlet’s Walk is one of those weird "perfection by default" albums. The music on it is well-written, (generally) well performed, contains interesting instrumentals, and comes together cohesively as an album. But more than that, it doesn't have any tracks that suck the energy out of the album. Each song is better than the prior one, building throughout the album to a magnificent whole. So, as I try to find something to complain about, I'm coming up empty. Congratulations Tori!

With 18 tracks, clocking in at 73:58, Scarlet’s Walk is easily the best use of the medium I have yet heard from Tori Amos. Filling the c.d. with one wonderful, melodic track after another, Amos manages to tell musical stories, emote deep emotions and present an album that does not have a boring, homogenous sound. Tori Amos, as is her fashion, wrote every song on the album and she also sings all of the vocals, providing primary and backing vocals on the tracks. This is actually impressive on songs like "Strange" where the backing vocals are actually integral to helping establish the haunted mood of the song.

As well, Amos plays various pianos: Bosendorfer piano, Rhodes, Wurlitzer (technically an organ, I believe) and Arp. Rumor is on several of the tracks, she is playing more than one of those at a time, at least she is able to do that in concerts. Impressive. As well, Scarlet’s Walk is produced by Tori Amos, so this is very much her musical vision.

And wow, what a musical vision! Structured in the liner notes like a concept album of a cross-country trip, Scarlet’s Walk meanders perfectly between songs about places ("Don't Make Me Come To Vegas," "I Can't See New York") and emotions ("Crazy," "Taxi Ride"). As well, she manages to mix in songs that tell little storysongs that are clever ("Mrs. Jesus") or just plain creepy and fun ("Wednesday"). In other words, this is a thematically diverse album and - to make the comparison - it doesn't have any of the lemons of Timbre.

That said, one of the ways Scarlet’s Walk immediately grabbed my attention was in the lyrics. First and foremost, Amos seems to be a master poet. Indeed, one need not even have music to accompany lines like "Where the river cross crosses the lake / Where the words / Jump off my pen and into your pages / Do you think just like that / You can divide / This / You as yours / Me as mine to before we were Us" ("Your Cloud"). Tori Amos returns the art to the breakup song and on Scarlet’s Walk, songs like "Your Cloud" remind those of us naysayers why she has such a following.

But one of the things that struck me right away about Scarlet’s Walk - outside being able to understand most all of the lyrics as Amos was singing them for a change - was some of the quirky humor Amos infused into some of the songs. Amos sings about paranoia and fear, but she makes it playful on "Wednesday" when she sings "Nothing here to fear / I'm just sitting around being foolish when there is work to be done / Just a hang-up call the quiet breathing of our / Persan we call Cajun on a Wednesday / So we go from year to year with secrets we've been keeping / Though you say you're not a Templar man / Seems as if we're circling for for very different reasons." Amos has a way of making strong allusions (like to the Knights Templar) and still creating a song that has a playful quality even while being deep. That's quite a talent.

Even so, Amos often goes for deep and straightforward moody even on Scarlet’s Walk. She tells a storysong involving the relationship between jealousy and vengeance on "Don't Make Me Come To Vegas" and it's both clever, quick and dark. And on "I Can't See New York," she creates a dark metaphor for life and death with her lines "From here crystal meth in meters of millions in the end all we have, soul blueprint. / Did we get lost in it / Do we conduct a search for this 'from the other side' / From the other side? / What do they mean / Side of what?" Being lost in a metropolis is blended with being lost in a drug haze which is mixed in with being lost between life and death. It's a clever song with layers of meaning in the lyrics and it is a pretty exceptional song from the writing.

Which leads me to the vocals. Usually, I have a strong problem with the vocals of Tori Amos. She is a great writer and she has an amazing soprano voice, but she often mumbles and slurs her lines in a way that makes one wonder why someone so brilliant wouldn't want to be understood. On Scarlet’s Walk, she seems to abandon the pretense in favor of both vocal range and holding notes. But on this album, she prioritizes articulation, which saves her from the usual vocal morass she presents.

One of the best examples is the song "Mrs. Jesus." On this song, she presents vocals that dominate her otherwise obvious pianowork (which is supported nicely by a string section). On "Mrs. Jesus," she enunciates her lines, holds notes long and plays in the lower range of her vocal abilities. The result is a song that is clear and different from most anything on most of her other albums.

Vocally, Amos still presents a number of songs that have the dreamy quality of her layered primary and backing vocals. "Taxi Ride" has a hypnotic quality to it that makes one all right with the fact that the lyrics are almost incomprehensible in her presentation. The song becomes more about the journey than her meaning and while I'm not fond of albums that make that priority on every track, it works on this track on this album.

Instrumentally, Scarlet’s Walk is one of the more diverse Tori Amos experiences on the market. "Wednesday" has an almost jazzy quality and many of the songs are actually upbeat in their musical presentation. This is one of Amos's more produced works which gives it a very haunting and powerful presentation. In other words, this is not just bland pop-rock on the musical side. Amos tends to start with piano (most overtly on "Another Girl's Paradise") and enriches with bass, percussion and sometimes a full orchestral backing.

There is something for virtually everyone on Scarlet’s Walk and anyone who wants something great by one of the best singer-songwriters of our time (and keep in mind, I'm not usually lauding her performance!) this is the Tori Amos album to pick up!

The best tracks are "Wednesday" and "Crazy" and there's no weak track on the album!

For other Tori Amos works, please visit my reviews of:
Boys For Pele
From The Choirgirl Hotel
Spark (single)
To Venus And Back
Midwinter Graces
Night Of Hunters


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing by clicking here!

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