Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Tori Amos's Two-Disc (Sort Of) Best Of (More Or Less): Tales Of A Librarian.

The Good: Some truly wonderful singles and recognizable hits
The Bad: DVD is more or less worthless, One or two real duds.
The Basics: A generally good compilation of the best tracks from the early part of the career of the extraordinary Tori Amos, Tales Of A Librarian is worth the buy!

I have a fantasy that I could write a one line review about a Tori Amos album and it would be enough for all who read it to truly understand how one of her albums is. So, for Tales Of A Librarian: A Tori Amos Collection, I would like to be able to pen the words: "Tori Amos is great when she enunciates her lyrics" and have that be enough. With her first major "best of" compilation, that has both the virtue of being true and being the simplest way to evaluate Tori Amos, possibly one of the most complex female singer-songwriters of the last twenty years.

I am not so big on trying to define genre anymore; they change far too often and what is considered "alternative" when it is initially released too soon becomes the standard for popular music and then passe the next year. As a result, listening to Tales Of A Librarian and its compilation of thirteen years worth of Tori Amos music, Tori Amos comes across as a musically obvious pop-rock artist with phenomenal writing ability and a vocal ability that is split between an exceptional range and terrible mumbling. Yes, Amos is a conflicted artist who has something to say, then moans and mumbles her way through some of her most poetic lyrics, resulting in an inability to be understood.

With 20 tracks, filling up a full 78:40 on the disc, Tori Amos presents Tales Of A Librarian, an anthology of Amos's recognizable singles from the first thirteen years of her career (the Atlantic Record period) as well as some of her best never-hits. So, her two biggest radio singles, "Silent All These Years" and "Cornflake Girl" are presented alongside fan favorites "Spark" and "Winter." As well, Amos released four new songs, two previously unreleased songs and two tracks that had been recorded and released before, but not in the form that they appear on Tales Of A Librarian in.

So, this is a showcase of the works of Tori Amos. Amos wrote all of the songs on album and she produced this album. She is credited with producing or co-producing all but one of the songs on the album and she is the primary vocalist throughout. As well, she plays piano on all of the songs that have one (all but "Me And A Gun") and occasionally provides her own background vocals (as she does on "Mary" and "Precious Things"). So this is, without a doubt, the musical vision of singer-songwriter Tori Amos.

And it is pretty wonderful. Amos has something to say (musically), a great soprano voice to sing it with and an ability on the piano that is one of the most impressive in music today. On Tales Of A Librarian, she includes music from her "beat yourself up" anthem "Crucify" to her haunting rape memoir "Me And A Gun" to an especially witless pop-dance remix of "Professional Widow." She alternates dramatically between the a cappella ("Me And A Gun"), the (more or less) acoustic ("Silent All These Years") and the orchestral ("Mr. Zebra," "Jackie's Strength").

But most people who tune in to Tori Amos are tuning in for her lyrics. Amos has a rather wide repertoire of songs that vary between the autobiographical and the universal, the songs about emotions and story-songs that are often haunting. Amos is a champion of survivors (victims who have overcome) and for that she ought to be universally praised and Tales Of A Librarian offers fans and those who have not traditionally been fans a chance to collect some of her best works in that regard.

Amos is a woman of faith and it is important to note that how religious or not she is, it is clear that she has a strong core of faith to her. Those who are open minded about such things will enjoy songs like "Mary," where she retells Mary Magdalene's story from a different perspective. She rewrites the story as "Everybody wants something from you / Everybody wants a piece of Mary / Lush valley all dressed in green / Just ripe for the picking / God I want to get you out of here / You can ride in a pink Mustang / When I think of what we've done to you / Mary, can you hear me" ("Mary")? Mary is indicative of one of Amos's storysongs and it follows in her theme of creating dark anthems about mistreated women who take a lot, but eventually overcome (sometimes only in the last line and sometimes only by disappearing).

This is not to say it is all misery and suffering on Tales Of A Librarian. No, Amos manages to have some fun and the most obvious example of that is "Mr. Zebra." Despite instrumentals and orchestration on the song that are reminiscent of Queen's "Killer Queen" and Amos's playful syncopation of "Zebra" which turns it into "Zee-brrr-uh" (a three-syllable word) and lyrics deeper than they initially appear, there is something fun about the singsong rhythm and rhyme scheme. Indeed, it is hard not to enjoy it when the piano begins and Amos playfully sings "Hello Mr. Zebra / Can I have your sweater / Cause it's cold cold cold / In my hole hole hole / Ratatouille Strychnine / Sometime she's a friend of mine / With a gigantic whirlpool / That will blow your mind" ("Mr. Zebra"). It is a welcome change from some of the dour angst that encompasses many of her other songs.

That's not to say - as well - that Amos doesn't do angst well or in a way that is interesting and listenable. Indeed, she does. One of the superlative examples of this on the album is "Spark." Amos creates a remarkably conflicted air with her lines "She's convinced she could hold back a glacier . . . But she couldn't keep Baby alive . . . Doubting if there's a woman in there somewhere / Here . . . You say you don't want it again and again / But you don't you don't really mean it / You say you don't want it / This circus we're in / But you don't really mean it. . ." ("Spark"). Conflict is at the core of much of Amos's music and "Spark" illustrates Amos's ability to articulate such themes in a musically interesting way.

Beyond that, Tales Of A Librarian is largely a representative sample of Amos's range, though some of her new songs or new recordings are not as memorable as some of her established works. "Sweet Dreams" is hypnotic and nauseating with the way Amos stretches out the title lines in the musical equivalent of a funhouse mirror (made worse by how it is repeated over and over again) and the dance remix of "Professional Widow" is just insipid for its pounding bass which does not relate at all to the song's themes.

But largely, this album is a compilation of songs that are characterized by one woman and her piano. As her career has progressed, she has added more instruments, but the most effective versions of that growth have been with complimentary instruments. So, for example, on "Jackie's Strength," Amos and her piano are accompanied by a string section and that continues the haunting, melodic sound that defines her light rock ballads.

For those who might not have hear Tori Amos before, she sings with an amazing voice that has tremendous range. She has an eerie soprano, which is probably how "Silent All These Years" shocked so many listeners (outside its lyrical content). But more than just the ability to sing where bats and Mariah Carey are best known to tread, Amos has the ability - which she exercises frequently - to run from a tenor range up through the soprano registers, as she does on "Mr. Zebra" and "Jackie's Strength."

Tales Of A Librarian is actually a two-disc set, with the second disc being a DVD. The DVD has about five live performances of songs that are not missed on the c.d. As well, there are lyrics, just as the liner notes have and frankly the DVD is a bit disappointing. It contains none of her videos from songs on the album and does not add any real insight or appreciation of the artist's artistry. It's a nice enough bonus, but when I saw there was a DVD inside, I expected a lot more, especially for a "best of" compilation.

That said, anyone looking for the digest version of the early works of Tori Amos will find Tales Of A Librarian to be a great investment. It is not, by any means, a perfect album ("Professional Widow" alone sees to that) but it is a great representation of Amos and her abilities. Anyone who likes strong female singer-songwriters and a powerful feminine vocalist will find something to love on this album.

The best track is "Spark," the low point is "Professional Widow."

For other Tori Amos works, please visit my reviews of:
Little Earthquakes
Under The Pink
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, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the albums and singles I have written!

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