Friday, April 6, 2012

No Fire Lit Here; "Spark" Underwhelms A Listener Who Wants To Like Tori

The Good: Good voice, Some decent lyrics, Music is generally good
The Bad: SHORT!, Unimpressive vocals that are hard to understand, Derivative sound
The Basics: While two of the songs are decent the third is so bad that the listener is better off buying the full albums, rather than hunting down this disc.

The scariest thing I've read in recent memory was about a Tori Amos single where the phrase EWF was referenced. EWF apparently stands for "ears with feet," Tori's phrase for her fans. Apparently not liking the word fan (with its origins in "fanatic"), she has instead dubbed her groupies "Ears With Feet." And her loyal fans appear not to be at all offended by this minimization of them. "Ears With feet" might be a cute little phrase, but when one considers what it is actually saying, it's a frightening prospect that those who adopt this label take it so willingly. This phrase eliminates any originality, personality or individuality from Amos's listeners. They're just ears with feet; they listen and show up. Wow. The truly scary thing about this phrase - especially coming from such an astute artist for whom candid observations are essential - is that it robs the devoted fans of a voice; they're not "Heads With Feet" they're "ears;" shut up and listen. And it's not like English doesn't have a pretty powerful ability to create synonyms. If Amos did not like "fans," there's always "listeners," "audience," "devotees," or "Amosites" (these are all off the top of my head, without checking a thesaurus). And those of you who consider yourself EWFs, get some dignity and stop putting up with it from that VWH (Voice With Hair)!

I start my review of the single "Spark" this way because I was terrified to read about the EWFs and I found myself disappointed with the three-track disc. Having listened to, and enjoyed, From The Choirgirl Hotel, I've been hunting more Tori Amos music since. I've listened to some singles (radio pressings, not commercially available discs) and tried to broaden my base and ear for Amos's work and when I found the three-track disc of "Spark," I was excited. Clocking in at eleven and a half minutes, "Spark" is made up of the title track and two b-side tracks - attributed to the "Macthirsty's Lounge B Sides. Last stop on the Kufurstendam" - "Purple People" and "Bachelorette."

For those who are unfamiliar with the works of Tori Amos, Amos is a singer-songwriter who plays piano and whose music is written and sung by Amos. Her distinctive sound is usually her alto voice accompanied by her piano whispering or belting out her lyrics with (alternatively) quiet grace or a lot of force and emotion. She has a wonderful voice and she writes generally good poetry.

The problem with Tori Amos as an artist - at least on the recordings I've heard so far ("Spark" is a single off of her album From The Choirgirl Hotel, so all my thoughts are coming from the same timeframe in her career) - is that sometimes her voice gets in the way of the lyrics or her lyrics are so dense, specific and self-referential that no matter how clearly they are heard (or read), there's no way to figure out what she's singing about without reading interviews from her. Writing can be a very useful therapy tool, but it does not always make for the best work. It can, but sometimes one gets so wrapped up in their issue and processing it that their artwork is merely the extroverted equivalent of therapy notes.

"Spark," for example, is just on the right side of density; read closely, it is clearly about her miscarriage experiences. Amos uses "Spark" as one of her powerful vocalizations with a haunting drum set accompanying her piano and strings. She works her way in with well-written lines like "She's afraid of the light in the dark / 6:58 are you sure where my spark is / Here . . . / She's convinced she could hold back a glacier / But she couldn't keep Baby alive . . ." It's dense, but it sounds good and the lyrics provide powerful imagery without being so insulated as to isolate the casual listener.

What follows is the best track with "Purple People." "Purple People" is the most articulate track on the album, with clear vocals, a distinct and flowing melody and clear lines. She sings the story of healing and it's a truly great song. With wonderful imagery like, "Thunder wishes it could be the snow," "Purple People" is a murky slow song powered almost exclusively by Amos's whispy, but direct voice. It almost sounds like a song heard in the safety of the womb, that's how careful and developed the sound is with the intent to evoke safety and protection. Every line is wonderful and it reads beautifully as a poem; fortunately Amos is so clear that one need not read it. They may sit back and listen to it.

"Bachelorette," however, closes the single with the absolute opposite. This song has the sound of a jazz nightclub track that is so distinct that I instantly figured out what it sounded like. In the movie Dark City (reviewed here!) Jennifer Connelley sings the song "Sway" (okay, she might just lip sync it) but the sound of this song is identical to that. Not similar, but identical with all of the layers of sound and the force of the vocal presentation.

And the vocals are the example of what I wrote earlier about her voice getting in the way of the lyrics. "Bachelorette" is sung forcefully (good volume and presence from Amos) but inarticulately. There are a lot of "um" and "ya-di-di-di-di-iy-iy-iy" (I kid you not - that's how the lines are transcribed on her lyrics page!). So, listening to the track is a pain and not worth it. The lines are almost indecipherable and listening to the track repeatedly does not make it any easier.

Reading the lines doesn't spell it out well either. I can henpick lines from the song and decipher or one two of them, but it does not come together as a cohesive poem. Instead, we are left with lines like "The things you do girls to your bachelorettes / You thoughts that um . . . / You must remember . . . " The closest I can get is that this song is about a promiscuous single woman and if that's it, I feel I had to do way too much work (especially tracking down the lyrics because the vocals are so garbled) to get to such an unsatisfying result.

Ultimately, "Spark" and "Purple People" are real good songs, but they are also both available elsewhere. "Spark" is on From The Choirgirl Hotel, "Purple People" is on To Venus And Back. Both are probably better choices than this one. At least then one is not stuck with "Bachelorette." It may be that that final track is exclusive to this disc, but I think even the die-hard fans of Tori Amos would discover they can live without it.

But then, what do I know? I'm just an LWH*.

For other Tori Amos works, please visit my reviews of:
Boys For Pele
From The Choirgirl Hotel
To Venus And Back
Midwinter Graces


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the music I have reviewed!

*LWH is Listener With Hands (it doesn't matter if I'm mobile as long as I can write about Tori Amos!)
© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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