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Tori Amos
Tales Of A Librarian
Atlantic Records

Over the course of her solo career, Tori Amos has been called a fiery rock goddess, a fragile diarist, nymph, victim, fairy queen, seductress, pig-suckling Madonna, vengeful feminist, personal savior, and flake. She may, or may not, be all of those things, but her music can't easily be defined by such glib labels. Few artists are as simultaneously stark and complicated as Amos. The phrase "naked honesty" was all but invented for her 1992 debut Little Earthquakes, a powerful and candid peek into her personal history; and she's broached everything from Christianity, masturbation, and miscarriage with a frankness that is not only uniquely female, but just left-of-center. In Amos' world, you get your raspberry swirled and ask Lucifer how his Jesus Christ has been hanging. And you do it (mostly) with a piano.

The mere thought of a comprehensive collection is enough to make fans salivate -- after all, Amos has a highly prolific catalog of b-sides, non-album tracks, and live recordings that are more than worthy of standing alongside any album track; not to mention the curiosity in song listing, since there's no obvious string of hit singles to pick and choose from. But on the flipside, any attempt at condensing the first ten years of as varied and broad an album-oriented career as Amos' is bound to disappoint die-hards, and present a fractured view to newcomers. Such is the unsatisfactory nature of any "best-of."

Tales Of A Librarian is a look at Tori Amos' work on Atlantic, her long-time label before jumping ship to Epic for 2002's excellent Scarlet's Walk. Billed as part career synopsis, part exercise in experimentation, Tales contains alternate mixes of album tracks, complete re-recordings of two Little Earthquakes-era b-sides, and two entirely new tracks, one of which has been eagerly anticipated by fans since the sessions for 1998's From The Choirgirl Hotel.

The album opens with Earthquakes' juggernaut "Precious Things", one of Amos' most visceral moments and a perfect example of the substance behind the overly simplified image of the girl with a piano. All too often, Tori Amos the musician is overlooked, and "Precious Things" is tensely orchestrated, underlied by a simmering piano line and opening with breathy pants, creating a sense of the gauntlet's beginning; Amos spends the rest of the song peeling verses away as if they were layers of skin. The original version of this song is righteous anger at its most intense; unfortunately, here, its legs are cut off at the knees. The remixing is immediately noticeable, the introductory piano sinking into the mix, and the climactic bridge -- the red-hot core -- is rendered impotent, slicked over and homogenized, which is what plagues many of the "redressings" on Tales. What makes so many of these songs engaging, particularly the earlier tracks, is the rawness, and smoothing those edges erases a lot of their impact. Sometimes, the changes are so subtle -- additional string work on "Winter" -- that only the most hardcore of fans will be able to discern the difference, which makes one wonder -- what's the point? The best, and most upfront, change to any track is the flipped bridge on "Cornflake Girl", which switches the deep "Man With The Golden Gun" vocals for the subtle "door" vocals that have long been hard to discern. Such a simple change works to dramatic effect, whereas "Tear In Your Hand" suffers mightily with its pointless vocal tweaking.

With the exception of Armand van Helden's atrocious dance remix of "Professional Widow", this is not a collection of bad album tracks. It is, however, a wildly uneven representation of Amos' progression as an artist, with eight out of 20 songs (six proper, and two b-sides) from Little Earthquakes alone. 1996's Boys For Pele, while by no means her strongest moment, is criminally underrepresented here -- "Way Down" and "Mr. Zebra" barely have four minutes between them, and in conjunction with the ill-advised "Widow" remix, presents a trite picture of such an emotionally raw and aurally challenging record. That any Tori Amos retrospective would leave out the haunting "Hey Jupiter" seems absurd. Under The Pink, the lush 1994 follow-up to Earthquakes, fares much better, with the feminine romp of "Cornflake Girl", the sly and slinky "God" (there hasn't been a better religious challenge since XTC's "Dear God"), and the lovely, if surprising, "Baker Baker." (Perhaps "Pretty Good Year" or "Icicle" would have been more appropriate?) "Spark" and "Jackie's Strength", off From The Choirgirl Hotel, represent the dark and the wistful sides of this bravely experimental (and underrated) record. "Playboy Mommy", on the other hand, provides a bit of schlock where the dazzling "Raspberry Swirl" could have served as a welcome counterpoint to the dance cheese of "Widow." 1999's rather cold To Venus And Back offers up the album's single, "Bliss", but this compilation misses out on the opportunity to wildly reinvent any of this album's mostly electronic songs.

So what's so "experimental" about Tales Of A Librarian? There are two highly anticipated re-recordings of "Winter" b-side "Sweet Dreams" and "Mary" here, and they both fall into the trap that ensnared Amos on her covers record, Strange Little Girls (noticeably absent here). Both of these reinventions lapse into lazy AOR stylizations, and "Mary" is the saddest casualty. The original version is nearly euphoric, riding each chorus like the crest of a wave, but it's reduced to monotonous, joyless parody here, and "Sweet Dreams" is similarly sucked dry. The two new songs provide a bit of redemption: "Snow Cherries From France" is lilting and bittersweet, if not particularly ambitious; and "Angels" would not have been out of place on Scarlet's Walk, with its political commentary wrapped in typically gauzy Amos imagery.

The DVD is definitely the highlight of this two-disc set. Though a big part of the Tori Amos concert experience is the breathless devotion of her audience, the intimate sound check performance included here not only provides a peek into why Amos is one of the most dynamic and engaging performers currently in music, but also gives bassist Jon Evans and drummer Matt Chamberlain a much deserved spotlight. Chamberlain in particular is a joy to watch, providing the perfect rhythmic nuance needed to carry, but not overwhelm, Amos' vocals. The melancholy "Northern Lad" is especially moving, and by its finish you realize the DVD's three live songs have given a far more complete representation of what makes Tori Amos so special than its hour-plus companion disc.

As always, the packaging is beautiful, employing creative use of the Dewey Decimal System and featuring vintage-style photos of Amos (inspired by her recent appearance in Mona Lisa Smile, perhaps?). But Tales Of A Librarian is a glass half-empty, with a deeply flawed track listing and ultimately shallow concept. The best introduction to Tori Amos remains Little Earthquakes, and fans and newcomers alike would best be served by album remasters and a proper b-sides compilation. Keep those fingers crossed.

-Heather Space

Track Listing:

1. Precious Things
2. Angels
3. Silent All These Years
4. Cornflake Girl
5. Mary
6. God
7. Winter
8. Spark
9. Way Down
10. Professional Widow
11. Mr. Zebra
12. Crucify
13. Me and a Gun
14. Bliss
15. Playboy Mommy
16. Baker Baker
17. Tear In Your Hand
18. Sweet Dreams
19. Jackie's Strength
20. Snow Cherries from France

1. Pretty Good Year
2. Honey
3. Northern Lad
4. Putting the Damage On [Dolby Surround]
5. Mr. Zebra [Dolby Surround]

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