Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Portion Might Be Big, But The Content Is Not Substantial To Venus And Back.

The Good: A lot of music, Good voice, Some excellent lyrics
The Bad: Overbearing sound, Indecipherable vocals on many tracks, Musically unimpressive
The Basics: In a shockingly disappointing musical outing, Tori Amos provides a studio and a live album together, neither of which are worthwhile.

After being suitably impressed by Tori Amos's album From The Choirgirl Hotel, I found myself implicitly recommending her double album To Venus And Back in my panning of the single "Spark.” The problem I'm facing now is that I've listened repeatedly to the two discs of To Venus And Back and I'm not impressed with the albums. In fact, it's pretty safe to say at this point that I'm not enjoying these albums.

Disc one is subtitled "Venus: Orbiting" is just under 48 minutes of new music and it's bigger and louder that much of Amos's prior works. With eleven tracks, "Venus: Orbiting" is an embodiment of sound and style over substance. Tracks like "Juarez" are loud with almost incomprehensible vocals. The songs are loud with production-enhanced drums, synthesizers and meandering pianos; Tori Amos's voice is lost in the mix.

The murky, indecipherable sound of "Juarez" is followed by "Concertina," which had some potential with its more stark, slick sound. The instrumentals are softer, recognizable and we can hear both Amos and her piano. However, between problems with articulation and the range her vocals go into (pitch), the song is almost as garbled as the song that precedes it. Sure, it has a memorable refrain, but the song is out of place, squeezed as it is between big tracks that are more electronica and dance than pop-rock.

I've no problem with artists experimenting. Indeed, one of my favorite albums to date is Sophie B. Hawkins's highly experimental Timbre (reviewed here!). The thing is, the experiment has to work for me to buy it. Tori Amos's music on To Venus And Back sounds more garbled and noisy than experimental and put together. On almost every track on the album, Amos's vocals are sublimated to the music backing the song. As a result, the dominant sounds are drums, synthesizers and electric sounds, bass, and guitars, with Tori Amos's voice layered behind it all.

Tori Amos has the ability to present a powerful and direct voice, but here many of her vocals are her more light and airy vocals. Her verbalizations are more wispy and lost behind the layers of sound, making the average song on To Venus And Back an auditory scavenger hunt as the listener struggles to catch the crumbs of Amos's voice amid all of the other sound. On songs like "Glory of the 80s," Amos is all over the musical spectrum with her voice, sometimes providing mid-range singing, others journeying up into Mariah Carey and dolphin pitches. And it just does not work. There's the sense that Amos just doesn't know where she wants to be, so the singer just puts out sound.

To Venus And Back is more sound than music. Even the better tracks, like the murky "Lust" fall short of anything approaching greatness. On "Lust," Amos's voice is buried behind pianos and bass, giving the listener the feeling that Amos's higher pitched vocals are coming from a great distance away and/or from underwater. Her closing is wonderfully articulate as she sings, "So she prays / For a prankster and lust / In the marriage bed / And he waits till she can give / And he waits and he waits."

Furthermore, in addition to the problem of understanding what Amos is singing (I never would have guessed "Suede" as the predominant lyric of that song had I not looked at the title), some of the lyrics are just plain disappointing. After working to understand what Amos is singing in "Josephine" - one of her better articulated songs on the album - the lyrics are just not up to par with some of her other songs. I like a good song about Napoleon and his wife, but the lines are just underwhelming as she sings ". . . To advance or not to advance / I hear you laughing / Even still you're calling me / 'Not tonight, not tonight, not tonight' / Josephine."

And while I like the message of "Riot Proof" ("She crawls through your lava sea / Black sahara I'm stepping in to your space oddity / It will all find its way in time. . . / Blossom, riot proof"), the lyrics are hard to hear amid all the sounds. And the music is reminiscent of a Tom Wait's song. I mean it, it sounds just like one of the songs on Real Gone.

Disc two, which I've mostly neglected for this review, is a live album entitled "Venus Live: Still Orbiting." With thirteen tracks, it clocks in at just over seventy-five minutes of music. The unique track on this disc is the wonderful "Purple People." As well, she does one of her favorite live songs, "Cooling," which Amos talks about how it was left off prior albums. The other eleven songs are live versions of songs from other albums. She presents such favorites as "Cornflake Girl," "Little Earthquakes," and "Space Dog."

The audience goes wild for "Mr. Zebra," but when I finally understood the lines - possible by reading the lyrics, though her somewhat jazzy presentation of the song is not entirely inarticulate - I didn't see what the fuss was about. It's chock full of cultural allusions, but otherwise it's not impressive as she sings, "She got a little fund to fight for Moneypenny's rights / Figure it out / She's a goodtime fella / Too bad the burial was premature she said / And smiled . . ." Maybe it's one of her more insular songs that is so self-referential as to be impossible to understand by the lyrics (some of Amos's songs refer to personal events in her life veiled in metaphors or using specific place/time names that unless one knows her personal history or has her explain it, the song is indecipherable).

Either way, the live disc is plagued by many of the same problems that the first one had. To wit, last week I listened to From The Choirgirl Hotel and the presentation of "Cruel" on the live disc was so garbled and different that I did not recognize it. I only knew it was the same song by looking at the track listing. Conversely, the opening to "Sugar" and "Bells For Her" sound suspiciously like the opening to "Spark," which I've heard far too frequently this last week.

The sound quality is so drastically off on this album that in order to hear the stories Amos tells between tracks (on the few that she talks about her songs), the listener must crank up the volume significantly in order to hear her, then gets blown away once the music starts again.

All in all, this is a fairly disappointing musical outing and there's a lot of it. The best songs are "Lust" (disc 1) and "Purple People" (disc 2) and the worst of the bad are "Juarez" (disc 1) and "Cruel" (disc 2).

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


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

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