Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Review This Again: Little Earthquakes By Tori Amos!

The Good: Wonderful vocals, Duration of two-disc version, Lyrics
The Bad: Musically inconsistent/disconcerting album arrangement
The Basics: Little Earthquakes is a worthwhile album for survivors and those who want deeper musical experiences, even if it is not the easiest album in terms of track to track transitions.

[There is a big meme in the art community going around now called "Draw This Again." In the meme, artists illustrate how they have grown in their chosen medium by putting side-by-side pictures of art they created in the past and now. My wife had the great idea that I should do something similar with my reviewing. So, for the rest of 2016, I will be posting occasional "Review This Again" reviews, where I revisit subjects I had previously reviewed and review them again, through a lens of increased age, more experience, and - for some - greater familiarity with the subject. This review is one such review, where I am re-experiencing Little Earthquakes after many years and with more experience as both a reviewer and one who has heard much of the Tori Amos library. The album was originally reviewed here!]

I was in high school when Tori Amos broke out with her mainstream hit songs "Silent All These Years" and "Crucify." At the time, I was still listening to music on audio cassettes and because money was tight for me (I spent a lot more on books than on music!), my rule for buying audio tapes was that I needed to know and like three singles from an album before buying it. Little Earthquakes, the Tori Amos album that had "Silent All These Years" and "Crucify" only had the two singles being played on my local pop radio station and so, I consciously avoided buying Tori Amos's solo debut album back in the day. When I became a reviewer, I made Tori Amos my Artist Of The Month one month and I was generally pleased with my decision; Tori Amos has incredible vocal range, but her albums tend to vacillate wildly from the incredibly familiar - one woman with very wispy vocals and a piano - to the virtually unrecognizable; all these years later, I can easily summon in my mind the tune for "Strange Little Girls" and "hear" Amos's guitars on the song.

So, listening to Little Earthquakes after hearing most of Tori Amos's subsequent works . I chose the 2015 two-disc version of Little Earthquakes for my Review It Again because I thought it would be fun to hear all of the b-side material intended for the album. What was instantly striking about listening to Little Earthquakes is how produced the album sounds. For some strange reason - probably because "Silent All These Years" was the first single I heard - I always associate Amos with being very understated musically. But "Crucify" is not vocally-driven; it is sweeping and orchestral in its musical accompaniment and it is followed by "Girl," which has very distinctive, pounding drums.

The two-disc version of Little Earthquakes is almost entirely the musical vision and creation of Tori Amos. The 2015 Deluxe version of Little Earthquakes has thirty tracks spread over two albums. The twenty-four original songs by Tori Amos are accompanied by a cover song (Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit") and five live versions of songs from the original Little Earthquakes. Outside the cover song, Amos is responsible for writing and composing all of the songs and she provides the lead vocals on all of the songs. Amos also provides some of her own backing vocals and plays piano (acoustic and electric) on all of the songs. Tori Amos is also credited as one of the albums co-producers, so it is hard to argue that Little Earthquakes was anything other than the album she wanted to make!

And it is good.

What makes Little Earthquakes so good now is that it is largely made up of a powerful blend of orchestral instruments, Tori Amos's vocals and Amos's piano. The songs are almost entirely a very traditional sounding pop-rock that is piano driven. Musically, Little Earthquakes sounds a lot like a late 1980s, early 1990s Billy Joel album . . . without the obsession of finding a "hook." What separates Amos's work on Little Earthquakes is the way Amos and her piano work together against the production elements, backing vocals and supporting instrumentation. On songs like "Precious Things," the guitar, keyboards and drums create a voluminous musical landscape into which Tori Amos and her piano pull the listener. To envision most of the music of Little Earthquakes in visual terms would be to imagine massive landscapes (created by the backing vocals, guitars, keyboards, bass, drums and other production elements) and Tori Amos at a piano in the setting; but instead of exploring the background, the cameras remain firmly focused on Amos and her piano. In other words, Tori Amos and her piano break out from the somewhat indistinct, but powerful backing elements.

Despite the richness of the bass, percussion and supporting instrumentation, the core of Little Earthquakes is Tori Amos and her piano. Almost all of the songs on Little Earthquakes are one woman and a piano ballads . . . They are generally slower tempo pop ballads, which provide a contemplative sound that invites the listener to pay attention to the lyrics. The supporting instrumentation reaches crescendos on tracks like "Winter" in order to heighten the mood and suck the listener in. Songs like "Happy Phantom" are up tempo, but are somewhat problematic in that the beating on the piano keys - especially in the lower registers - overwhelms the vocals by Tori Amos.

Vocally, Tori Amos has one of the most distinctive voices to ever grace pop-rock music and Little Earthquakes establishes the soprano as a force to be reckoned with. Amos hits high notes, goes lower into the alto register and soars back up for vocals that are emotional and technically incredible. Amos exhibits exceptional lung capacity on Little Earthquakes, as she is able to hit the high notes and hold them. On the up-tempo tracks, Amos manages to sing fast, hit notes solidly and make her words clear. The notable exception is "China," where Amos holds notes, but some of the lines run together into auditory mush.

What keeps Little Earthquakes relevant even now are the lyrics of Tori Amos. Little Earthquakes is an album that glorifies introspection and vulnerability. Opening with "Crucify," Little Earthquakes explores self-punishment, pain, and making changes in one's life. Outside rhymes like "Why am I here / If love Isn't forever / And it's not the weather / Hand me my leather / I could just pretend that you love me / The night would lose all sense of fear / But why do I need you to love me / When you can't hold what I hold dear" ("Leather"), Tori Amos has an incredibly fresh and original lyrical sensibility on Little Earthquakes.

While Tori Amos is wonderfully able to develop concepts and moods in her songs, she illustrates a rare talent on Little Earthquakes, which is to make a potent point in a brief amount of space. On "The Pool," she manages to tell a distinct musical story with very limited lyrics. When Amos sings "One with her hands / Open / 'Don't be afraid' she said / 'No one will know it / Just you and me' / And when it's over / I'll go back" ("The Pool") she tells a very complete musical story.

Much of Little Earthquakes is a triumph of survival and endurance in the face of uncommon, deeply human, horrors. While "Girl" and "Little Earthquakes" get a little repetitive, it is hard to deny that Tori Amos has a powerful sense of poetics to her lines. With the lines "We danced in graveyards / With vampire till dawn / We laughed in the faces of kings never afraid to burn / And I hate and I hate / And I hate and i hate / Disintegration / Watching us wither / Black winged roses that safely changed their color . . . Give me life, give me pain / Give me myself again" ("Little Earthquakes"), Tori Amos details both pain and the desire to overcome her musical protagonist's wounds.

Little Earthquakes has good tracks, but it is harder to recommend as an album than some of Tori Amos's other albums. In some ways, Little Earthquakes sounds like a sampler album for Tori Amos to showcase her range. But track to track, the album ends up sounding somewhat jumbled compared to the more thematically or musically unified albums that would follow. There is something disconcerting about "Tear In Your Hand" and "Me And A Gun" being right next to one another on Little Earthquakes; they are so very different musically.

But the bulk of Little Earthquakes is a musical and lyrical exploration of self discovery and perseverance, which makes it a powerful and worthwhile album for anyone who wants to wallow . . . and overcome.

The best songs are "Winter" (disc 1) and "Mary" (disc 2), the low points are "China" (disc 1) and "Humpty Dumpty" (disc 2).

For other Tori Amos works, please visit my reviews of:
Under The Pink
Boys For Pele
From The Choirgirl Hotel
Jackie's Strength (single)
Spark (single)
To Venus And Back
Strange Little Girls
Tales Of A Librarian: A Tori Amos Collection
Scarlet's Walk
American Doll Posse
Midwinter Graces
Night Of Hunters
Unrepentant Geraldines


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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