Saturday, May 12, 2012

All The Best Tracks Are Available Elsewhere: Under The Pink Is Melodic Mediocrity.

The Good: Moments of voice, Lyrics, Musically interesting for the most part
The Bad: Mumbles through many of her best lines, Moments of vocals/instrumentals
The Basics: On one of her best-selling albums, Under The Pink, Tori Amos fails to impress this reviewer due to a lack of anything truly new or different.

There is a line in an episode of Family Guy where, in reference to Gwen Stefani, Brian says "I don't know what a 'Hollaback Girl' is but I want to kill Gwen Stefani." I don't know what a "Cornflake Girl" is supposed to be, but having listened to the song a lot on Under The Pink, I'm pretty much ready to abandon Tori Amos. I mean, I have an English degree and after reviewing the lyrics to "Cornflake Girl" repeatedly, it doesn't seem to be saying anything. Yes, one of Tori Amos's most recognizable songs seems to be little more than a random string of words arranged next to one another, with a catchy, disturbing and insinuative trauma-implied refrain.

In other words, on Under The Pink, Tori Amos continues her trend of appealing to the post-traumatic stress disorder tween crowd and I've no problem with her being the postergirl for them. I suppose I just want things to make sense and on Under The Pink, Tori Amos does not. She continues to write phenomenal lyrics ("Cornflake Girl" notwithstanding), sings with an angelic voice and mixes the sound up reasonably well from the one-woman and her piano sound. But on the other half, she makes most of her lines virtually incomprehensible for those trying to actually hear her lyrics and, more than on her prior album, this one does have more songs that put Amos plaintively behind her piano with a stark, repetitive sound (as on "Past The Mission" and "Baker Baker").

With a dozen tracks, clocking out at 57:47, Under The Pink is distinctly the work of Tori Amos. On each song, she provides the music and lyrics, as well as the vocals and the primary piano. She notes exclusively playing Bosendorfer, save on one track where she plays an upright piano, but either way, she plays the pianos and she does that with consistent proficiency. In addition to writing all of the lyrics and composing all of the music, Amos is credited as a co-producer on the album. As a result, it is fairly easy to declare that this album is the thoughts and sound Amos intended to release.

Under The Pink is a remarkably average pop-rock album. Despite the lyrics, songs like "Cornflake Girl" and "The Wrong Band" sound remarkably middle-of-the-road piano-based pop-rock. Amos clearly has some jazz and folk sensibilities thrown in, like on "God" and "The Waitress," but for the most part, the sound of the overall album is pop-rock with an alternation between the lone woman at piano sound and strong, produced numbers that capitalize on sound. In fact, in her more instrumentally powerful songs, there seems to be a fairly strong relationship between the volume and anger, as on "Space Dog."

However, the reason most people seem to listen to the works of Tori Amos are her lyrics. On Under The Pink, Amos manages to write a decent combination of songs that are universal and powerful in their emotive depth and obscure storysongs that seem mostly self-referential. The result is an album that is very definitively Tori Amos and while I can see why fans might flock to the album, it is a tough sell for those who are tuning in just to hear what she is about.

This is not to say the experience is entirely unpleasant. Take, for example, her storysong "The Wrong Band." On that song, Amos melodically sings "I think it perfectly clear we're in the wrong band / Senator let's be sincere as much as you can / He called her up and he said the new prosecutor soon will be wanting a word / So she's got a soft spot for hells and spurs / And there's something believin' in her voice again and there's something believin' / Instead of just leavin'" ("The Wrong Band"). The list song is politically aware, clearly speaking to youth who feel disfranchised and want to insure their voices are heard and taken seriously. Amos deserves credit for that and, fortunately, that is one of the clearest songs on the album.

On the other end of the spectrum is "Cloud On My Tongue." Lyrically, this is a confused song exacerbated by lines that are slurred together in a way that illustrates Amos's voice, but mumbled through to be almost incomprehensible. Still, looking up the lines, one puzzles to decipher exactly what it means "Don't stop now what you're doin' / What you're doin' my ugly one / Bring then all here hard to hide a hundred girls in your hair / It won't be fair / If I hate her / If I ate her / You can go now" ("Cloud On My Tongue"). I get that a lot of Amos's songs are cathartic release for her, speaking to young women who have had traumatic events, but sometimes, I have to stop and ask "What are you hearing in these lines?!" Even the song that follows it, "Space Dog" which starts clear and political, degenerates into auditory mush that emotes, but does not speak (or educate).

In fact, the only songs that truly resonated with me were "Past The Mission," which was a clear - if repetitive - number arguably about faith in the real world and "God." "God," on suspects, speaks to a grand silent minority of people who are tired of the apparent inaction of a noninterventionist god. Amos writes and sings a singularly direct and dissonant song when she declares "God sometimes you just don't come through / Do you need a woman to look after you . . . I gotta find what you're doing about things here / A few witches burning gets a little toasty here / I gotta find why you always go / When the wind blows . . ." ("God"). Amos asks the questions that riddle the believer who is plagued with doubts and she makes it work for her song.

That said, "God" is one of the few tracks on the album that both sounds good instrumentally and vocally and has lyrical strength behind it. More often, songs are like "Yes, Anastasia" which sounds good with decent intensity for a lone woman at her piano (in this case backed by a string section) but the lyrics are obscured by vocals that are not enunciated as clearly as they could be.

And, largely, Under The Pink seems less ambitious than "Little Earthquakes," the album that preceded this one. Amos seems to be auditorily more conservative and shows no vocal growth. As a result, she seems more trapped within her niche than an artist who is growing and developing. "God" and "Cornflake Girl" pop up on Amos's compilation album "Tales Of A Librarian" and for those looking for an album to accompany the compilation, Under The Pink hardly makes an argument to be the one worthy of that. Instead, it is too nebulous, repetitive and . . . strangely unambitious for the artist who clearly has something to say.

The best track is "God," the low point is the utterly unmemorable "Bells For Her."

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


For other music reviews, 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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