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
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
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.
1. Precious Things
3. Silent All These Years
4. Cornflake Girl
9. Way Down
10. Professional Widow
11. Mr. Zebra
13. Me and a Gun
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
3. Northern Lad
4. Putting the Damage On [Dolby Surround]
5. Mr. Zebra [Dolby Surround]
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