Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Cover Amos: Strange Little Girls Gives Tori Amos A Chance To Reinterpret A Lot!

The Good: Some great, creative versions of other people's works
The Bad: Some poor choices, Some fail to truly reinterpret the works.
The Basics: Tori Amos presents some interesting covers and some that we could have lived without in an album that ultimately is just worth listening to!

As I sit here listening to Tori Amos's cover album Strange Little Girls, I find myself straining to recall if I have ever reviewed an album entirely of cover songs before. In fact, I think the only albums I have reviewed that has been all cover songs were Linda Rondstadt's Feels Like Home and James Darren's This One's From The Heart. I tend to like artists, as opposed to performers, so it is always a tough sell for me to review works where one portrays the other. Singer-songwriters are artists, creators of something new, different and (hopefully) great. Performers simply present what others put in front of them. The latter can have quality, but what they have is hardly their own and often others can come along and remake what they do at least as well as they do.

Enter Tori Amos, inarguably an artist of a caliber that is uncommon in pop-rock music. Amos usually writes all of her own music and lyrics and for Strange Little Girls she wrote none. Instead, this is a project that casts Amos in the role of a performer and it gives her a little latitude to do as she sees fit, within the context of the lyrics and basic music of the original artists. Still, she manages a few reinterpretations that are clever and interesting. But not all of her choices of songs to cover work.

With a dozen songs occupying 62:11, Strange Little Girls is a collection of songs written by artists like Tom Waits, Lou Reed, the Beatles and . . . ugh, Eminem. Amos provides the primary vocals on all of the songs, but she does not even play an instrument on every track. Sure, she plays piano, wurlitzer and Bosendorfer on various tracks, but she also provides vocals only on some of the songs. In fact, some of the arrangements for songs which reinterpret the originals were not even done by Amos! She did, however, produce the album, so it is hard to say that she did not get the album she intended to with Strange Little Girls.

Even so, the album is hardly an impressive one. There are individual tracks that stand out - both good and bad - but the overwhelming difference between this album and virtually every other Tori Amos project is just how produced the album is. None of the songs are Amos's trademark one-woman at a piano sound. None of the songs are particularly stark or as haunting as she usually manages to get with her own works. And the songs are truly a mixed bag when it comes to their lyrics, which tend to be one of the stronger things that Amos has going for her on her albums.

Some of her picks, though, are as close to genius as one could get. Tom Waits and Tori Amos sound completely different vocally, but musically and lyrically, they are two very similar artists. As a result, it is perfectly natural, appropriate and likable that Amos chose to cover the Tom Waits song "Time." Indeed, she sings his lines "And they all pretend they're Orphans / And their memory's like a train / You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away / And the things you can't remember / Tell the things you can't forget that / History puts a saint in every dream / Well she said she'd stick around / Until the bandages came off" ("Time") that is perfect and mournful both evoking Waits's darkness and infusing it with an undeniable quality of Amos's own. If there were any track on the album that sounds like it could be written by Tori Amos, it would have to be "Time."

Perhaps the most disturbing track as antithesis to that is the Eminem song "Bonnie & Clyde '97." This terrible song is not improved upon by Tori Amos whispering it out as a psychotic little storysong. It's dark, which fits Tori Amos, but it is mean and brutal and predictable in a way that Amos's own lyrics usually are not. So when she sings "Wake up sweepy (sic) head we're here, before we pway (sic) / we're gonna take mama for a wittle (sic) walk along the pier / Baby, don't cry honey, don't get the wrong idea / Mama's too sweepy (sic) to hear you screamin in her ear (ma-maa!) / That's why you can't get her to wake, but don't worry / Da-da made a nice bed for mommy at the bottom of the lake / Here, you wanna help da-da tie a rope around this rock. . ." ("Bonnie & Clyde '97") in a speaking voice, it is less impressive than virtually any other song she could have picked. In fact, I would have taken a Tori Amos cover of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" before putting this poorly-written schlock on the album!

The decent aspect of Strange Little Girls is that largely Amos chose songs that were at least up to her level of diction. Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King's "Raining Blood" uses more sophisticated language than the usual thousand words that pop up in the average pop-rock song, so it comes out sounding good from Tori Amos. Amos sounds very natural when she sings the lines "Death will be their acquisition / The sky is turning red / Return to power draws near / Fall into me, the sky's crimson tears / Abolish the rules made of stone / Pierced from below, souls of my treacherous past" ("Raining Blood"), which helps to make the song more her own.

Largely, Amos does use Strange Little Girls to reinterpret the songs she is covering . . . within limits. Amos uses media clips on "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" to make a satirical statement against gun rights by including clips of newscasters talking about John Lennon's murder and George W. Bush witlessly declaring that criminals shouldn't have guns. It works and is interesting.

But some of her best covers hardly do anything impressive as far as reinterpretation goes. For example, the slow and moody "Enjoy The Silence" and "I'm Not In Love" are hardly great remakes of the originals. Do they sound different? Sure; both were originally 1980's new wave hits that had a lot of production and beats designed for dancing. Amos removes the dance beats and replaces them with solemn pianos. The thing is, this is hardly groundbreaking or impressive as LYRICALLY this is what both songs were already doing. Amos makes them sound good, though and it is interesting enough to hear them closer to the lyrical intensity of what the songs ought to be.

That said, perhaps the most impressive reinterpretation would have to be "Heart Of Gold." On that track, Amos takes Neil Young's somewhat upbeat sounding song and makes it into a nightmarish, twisted track that makes one feel like their ears will bleed. Ultimately, it is that type of creative energy that made me decide to recommend Strange Little Girls. Amos is clever and interesting and on this album she articulates well enough to actually be understood. Sometimes, that's the best we can hope for!

The best track is "Time," the low point is "Bonnie & Clyde '97."

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
Scarlet's Walk
American Doll Posse
Midwinter Graces
Night Of Hunters


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

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

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