The Good: Great voice, Generally decent lyrics, Interesting overall sound
The Bad: Seriously frontloaded
The Basics: In a close call, even the lyrics of Tori Amos can't save her from the erratic music presentation that leads me not to recommend Little Earthquakes.
There is something odd about going back to the things that we have memories about from our youth, but did not necessarily have. I have been listening to a lot of albums by Tori Amos lately and as I've listened to her popular breakthrough album Little Earthquakes, I've thought a lot about where I was when the album was first released. I recognize the two big radio hits, "Silent All These Years" and "Crucify," of course, but I didn't own this album back in the day and I started to think about why. When Little Earthquakes was released, I was just entering high school and I didn't have a disposable income and I am pretty sure I was still listening to music on audio cassette. I don't know why Tori Amos didn't grab me from those singles enough to pick the album up, but it seems odd to me because the more I listen to Little Earthquakes, the more I think I would have liked it more when I was in high school and that phase of my life.
As it is, now, listening to Little Earthquakes, I am caught in an odd bind. I find myself appreciating some newer Tori Amos works more and I can recognize how this album was quite different from anything else that was on the radio at the time. But the flipside is that I've listened to the album at least twelve times now and, frankly, I'm bored by it. Whereas I listened to Scarlet's Walk at least as many times back-to-back and still was enjoying it and finding new things in it when I finally moved on, Little Earthquakes just doesn't carry the spark to make me want to delve deeper into it and auditorily, it's just not interesting.
No one is more surprised by my indifference to Little Earthquakes than I am; I figured it would be an album I was exceptionally excited about and would keep me engaged. Sadly, it didn't.
With twelve songs occupying 57:07, Little Earthquakes at least has the distinction of being very much the musical vision of singer songwriter Tori Amos. Amos wrote all of the songs and she provides the primary vocals on all of them. As well, she plays acoustic piano on eleven of the tracks and electric piano on one of them (alongside her acoustic piano performance). She is given a production credit (or co-credit) on four of the songs. With only a third of the album coming under her production direction, it is difficult to say how much of the ultimate sound of the album is her intended one, but generally this does appear to be the creative endeavor of Tori Amos.
Unfortunately, the result is strangely a mixed bag and production is a good place to start. Little Earthquakes contains a number of songs that might surprise those who know Amos from the demure musings of "Silent All These Years." While there are other songs on the album that sound like that (like "Winter"), there are a number of tracks that are much heavier. "Precious Things," for example, stands out as a thrashing, angry tune with Amos banging on acoustic and electric guitars. Her pianos are almost overwhelmed by the electric guitars, percussion and male backing vocals.
As well, one need only listen to "Crucify," which kicks off the album, to recognize that the overall sound of Amos's work is carefully produced, including vocal alteration elements. So, while Amos has a great natural voice, several of the tracks do not capitalize on that. While some artists can effectively jump across many musical styles on one album and make the album work - most notably Sophie B. Hawkins's album Timbre (reviewed here!) and Heather Nova's album South (reviewed here!) - Little Earthquakes sounds much more fractured that that. There is a buckshot approach to the album with songs that alternate between upbeat, jazzy ditties like "Happy Phantoms" to a Madonna-esque overproduced pop ballad with "China" to the piano-driven, stark musings of "Winter."
The result is an album that is good, not great, and ultimately fails to land. The thing is, after twelve listens (I'm on number thirteen as I write this) I find myself with an utter inability to speak about anything on the latter half of the album. After "China," the album devolves into an auditory sludge where the songs blend one into another in an indistinct sound that is completely unmemorable. While the first half of the album might be chaotic, fractured and dissonant, the latter half is bland. It was in writing that line that I realized that I wasn't going to recommend the album.
So, why did it take me so long to recognize that I was not as enthused about Little Earthquakes as I anticipated? The lyrics are a great place to start. Tori Amos has beautiful poetic lyrics that make it easy to see how she reached an audience. The sense of loss, oppression and self-punishment that is articulated in "Crucify" and "Silent All These Years" easily speak to young people. Survivors need - and deserve - a postergirl to sing the anthems of their struggles and Tori Amos makes for an amazing and articulate choice in that regard.
The thing is, Amos has poetics that are difficult to handle sometimes. So, for example, on "Leather," she horrifically muses on abuse with lines that are wrenching to read or hear, like ". . . Don't you want more than my sex / I can scream as loud as your last one / But I can't claim innocence / Oh god, could it be the weather / Oh god why am I here if love isn't forever / And it's not the weather . . . I could just pretend that you love me / The night would lose all sense of fear . . ." Amos is fearless with her lyrics and she deserves a huge amount of credit for that. "Leather" does not try to be light or fun, but it is not melodramatic either.
Fortunately, the entire album is not made up of psychological horror stories set to music. Indeed, Amos probably speaks so powerfully to her audience because mixed in with the abuse and terror and proto-cutting anthems, there are songs expressing an intense desire to be loved and to experience what love is. So, for example, on "China," Amos soars with a great sense of longing and the result is passionate and intense. This primarily comes when she sings "Sometimes I think you want me to touch you / How can I when you build the great wall / Around you in your eyes / I saw the future together / You just look away in the distance" ("China"). Amos's sense of desire speaks quite truly to the basic human need to connect and that is amplified by the sense of betrayal on so many of the other songs.
I suspect, though, that the lyrics to the songs on Little Earthquakes are also why Tori Amos never captured a larger share of the market. She's too smart for the masses. The poetics Amos employs to engage her listeners are articulate and intelligent, utilizing a well-defined sense of poetry and a level of diction the average pop-rock listener is not entirely familiar with and therefore tends to be wary of. So when Amos presents a storysong like "Winter" with lines like "I think of winter / I put my hand in my father's glove / I run off where the drifts get deeper / Sleeping beauty trips me with a frown / I hear a voice / 'You must learn to stand up for yourself cause I can't always be around' / He says when you gonna make up your mind / When you gonna love you as much as I do" it's probably too complicated for most listeners who seem to like things spoon-fed to them.
On Little Earthquakes, Amos still is finding her voice. She had an incredible soprano voice and songs like "Me And A Gun" are carried entirely on the strength of her vocal ability. Similarly, "Silent All These Years" would hardly be as haunting were it not for the starkness of Amos's vocal presentation. That said, the album is not a great showcase for the purity of Amos's voice and there are moments it seems like she is trying desperately to appeal to a wider audience with her presentation. Most notable among these is "Tear In Your Hand" where Amos sounds like she is emulating Stevie Nicks. I love Stevie Nicks as much as the next person, but Amos has her own distinct voice and doesn't need to try to be any other artist, even on an album as early as this one.
Ultimately, this is a good album, but not great. It has the potential that Amos realized later on in her career, but she just doesn't land it for me, especially on the replayability. One suspects the best tracks from Little Earthquakes have (or will) end up on a compilation album (in fact, they have: "Tales Of A Librarian") and that one might be better of purchasing that compilation than this album.
The best track is "Winter," the low point is the unmemorable "Mother."
For other Tori Amos works, please visit my reviews of:
Boys For Pele
From The Choirgirl Hotel
To Venus And Back
American Doll Posse
Night Of Hunters
For other music reviews, please be sure to visit 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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