Friday, April 20, 2012

The New Thing We've Heard Before: American Doll Posse Satisfies Because It's Middle-Of-The-Road.

The Good: Decent lyrics, Good instrumentals, Good enough vocals.
The Bad: Nothing terrible different from Tori Amos.
The Basics: Good sounding, but not terribly new, American Doll Posse is exactly what one expects from a Tori Amos album, save that it's a bit more commercial pop-rock instrumentally.

There is a fairly well-known concept in the business of being cutting edge, which is the idea that to be a commercial success one needs to produce something that is new and familiar. The argument goes that the true trendsetters retain some measure of familiarity while producing something that challenges the audience in one way. In other words, it is considered commercial suicide to change all elements of a formula and produce something that is entirely new and different from anything anyone has experienced before. That level of audacity, the argument goes, is too much for the general populace and they tend to rebel rather than adopt the new work or concept.

I mention this at the outset of my review for the Tori Amos album American Doll Posse because it seems with this outing that Tori Amos has somewhat adopted this philosophy. Unlike something that is crazy and unlistenable like an album by Bjork, American Doll Posse retains Amos's lyrical creativity, presents her moody vocals and presents a more straightforward pop-rock instrumental sound than many of her other albums (at least the ones I've heard). And it was on my eighth listen through when I was listening to "Bouncing Off Clouds" that I realized I was enjoying the song and the album and the reason was that more of the songs are a nonthreatening pop-rock like that song than, for example, the more moody and less comprehensible "Father's Son," which pops up late in the album. Yeah, I found I enjoyed the album because it challenged me less than some of Amos's other works. Go figure.

With twenty-three tracks, clocking out at an impressive 78:42, American Doll Posse manages to keep me impressed with Tori Amos as a singer-songwriter. Tori Amos wrote all of the songs on the album and she produced the album as well. Right off the bat, that is a tremendous amount of creative control for an artist to retain and that Amos uses that energy and ability to fill an album up as much as she does with American Doll Posse is noteworthy. After months of reviewing albums by talented singer-songwriters who barely use half a c.d.'s capacity (James Taylor, I'm looking in your direction!) is it refreshing to listen to something so full as American Doll Posse.

As usual, Amos provides the primary and backing vocals, though she credits other personalities with some of the vocals. I swear sometimes I suspect that Amos is simply making albums still to do the photoshoots for the liner notes where she gets to play dress-up. If she weren't so gifted (I seem to be more impressed with her later works than her earlier endeavors that gave her her vast following) she'd be truly annoying. In addition to singing, she plays the Bosendorfer, Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Electric piano, Clavichord, meletron and piano upright. Her other personalities may be vocally inclined, but apparently only Tori is instrumentally adept. And on American Doll Posse she proves her worth yet again.

American Doll Posse does appear to be a concept album splitting up at least four personalities and giving them voice. This makes some sense as the album is broken into four groups of songs, generally following along the lines of the experimental, location story-songs, the overtly sexual and musings on mental health. The blocks of songs take the listener on a musical journey from the more upbeat jazzy and pop-rock sounds of songs like "Big Wheel" and "Bouncing Off Clouds" to the more ethereal ballads like "Roosterspur Bridge." The trip is a decent one.

The fundamental quality that all of the songs share is a musing tone to the lyrics. This is a far less declarative album overall, with a wider range of interpretation to many of the lines. For example, "Body And Soul" is a song that can be taken for its more overt religious content with its lines like "Sweet communion / I have waited all my life / You say you are bonafide / To be my judge / Lay your law down on me love" or for the strong sexual connotation that comes through even when she sings "In my temple boy be warned / Violence doesn't have a home now but ecstasy / That's as pure as a woman's gold." Amos effectively combines religious sentiments with sensual emotional and sexual content to create songs that are stirring. Of course, for Tori Amos, this is par for the course, hence the familiar thing we've heard before.

As well, listeners can expect the self-revelatory songs they might expect from Tori Amos. Amos has a voice and musical presence to her story-songs, especially the ones that seem to be autobiographical that make her listeners believe she is connecting with them in a very personal way. So when she sings "Then I tried once to comply / With an authority that would / Subsidize my wild side / But at this altar was sacrificed / Yes you can laugh a femme fatale / In a bride's dress now married to / The effortlessness of the cracks / That lie between the facts" ("Almost Rosey") many read this as permission to move past the pain and into healthy relationships again. For those so bound to a celebrity's ideology, this becomes a gift from the artist to her fans and she gives it through revealing her own surrender of hatred and pain from her own experiences. In this way, American Doll Posse becomes both a decent listening experience for casual listeners and an invitation to catharsis for the most literal fans.

But even her more pop-driven songs on this album are lyrically interesting. I found myself pleasantly grooving out to the early songs on the album, though I did find her making a refrain out of being a MILF somewhat troubling. But on "Bouncing Off Clouds," Tori Amos reinvents the fun-sounding, but sensible pop-rock love song with her lines "Bouncing off clouds we were / Is there a love Lost and Found / Make it easy / Make this easy / It's not as heavy as it seems." She makes it fun sounding and playful, even through the breakup portions of the song capturing well the energy and enthusiasm with which we throw ourselves into love and relationships.

Vocally, American Doll Posse is a very average Tori Amos recording. "Dark Side Of The Sun" contains Amos's trademark soaring notes as she runs through an impressive range from soprano to husky in moodiness. "Posse Bonus" has her articulating quickly and the rest of the songs contain some range of her usual soprano slurring and enthusiastic enunciations.

Instrumentally, this is a rather piano and keyboard driven album and the only real problem with that is that there are songs that sound either like one another or like very typical piano-driven songs. "Big Wheel," for example, has a bandstand type feel to the pounding piano beats. Yes, the piano is used more to keep time than say anything musical in that song and it sets the listener up for an experience that is more familiar than groundbreaking.

Overall, the album is good and it is a very easy recommend for American Doll Posse, but one ought not to expect this to be the great defining work from Tori Amos for all those who want her to continue trendsetting. On this album she tends to fit instrumentally within a long tradition of pop-rock artists and vocally within the parameters of where she has been almost her entire career. Fortunately, her lyrics continue to set her apart from most every other artist, giving her a place to push the envelope. And besides, any musical artist who can convincingly use "vitriolic" in one of their songs deserves to be heard!

The best track is "Bouncing Off Clouds," the weakest track is the unmemorable "Programmable Soda."

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


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the albums and singles I have reviewed.

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