By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
From the Choirgirl Hotel
Either you feel Tori Amos' pain or you think she is a pain; either you embrace her confessions and piano-bench grindings or you dismiss her as nothing but a bundle of theatrics and bullshit who turned to piano-pop when her hair-metal career failed. Never does anyone listen to her and think, Oh, she's awright. That's because Amos makes records that are alluring on the surface but so enigmatic and intimate deep down that they almost make no sense at all. She can turn a nonsense pairing of words into the most poetic image you have ever read/heard (referring to the "Lollipop Gestapo" on From the Choirgirl Hotel), reduce sex to a damning punch line ("You're only wet/because of the rain"), or trip herself up with fatuous, deepthink schoolgirl lyrics ("With your E's/and your ease/and I do one more/need a lip gloss boost").
Little Earthquakes, Amos' "proper" debut in 1991, was a genuine revelation--beautiful to listen to but difficult to hear. From the get-go, Amos revealed everything about herself until she seemed to be offering a bit too much. She was an extension of the 1970s singer-songwriters who turned innermost feelings into universal plaints, only Amos' her inner demons--and her inner crap--belong solely to her; you can touch, but you cannot keep.
From the Choirgirl Hotel is more of the same but less so: The angsty melodrama of 1994's Under the Pink and Boys for Pele has given way to music that offers more warmth and words that carry more weight. It's still capital-A-art-rock, but the piano is less obtrusive, set in the background where it plays nice with the guitars and drum loops and bass beats that keep Amos' feet on the ground. She still buries her point in so many pretty-word vagaries--is the woman who screams, "I have to get to Texas" in "Black-Dove (January)" on the run from an attacker or herself?--but she proves that when so determined, she can indeed tell a pointed, warm story.
Amos becomes the "Playboy Mommy" who seeks penance from her dead daughter for not being "the fantasy of what you wanted me to be"; she becomes the woman who prays for the fortitude of Jackie Kennedy, whose loss Amos identifies with. Indeed, "Jackie's Strength" is the album's lyrical and musical highlight: Over a soundtrack-like string arrangement, Amos looks backward toward childhood, recalling the Kennedy assassination and David Cassidy lunch boxes and smoking pot during sleepovers. It's more than a pop-culture clearinghouse; she's recalling that yesterday was no better than today ("feeling old by 21") and that you are often alone no matter where you are--in a bright, shining Camelot or on the altar, waiting on the groom.