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Tori Amos: Strange Little Girls

Strange Little Album

By Fred Choi

staff writer

Tori Amos is without a doubt one of the most consistently and thoroughly confounding artists around. At first glance it would be easy to write off her latest album, Strange Little Girls, as just a spacey feminist manifesto that would only appeal to her almost cultish legion of fans. However, on closer inspection the album contains intelligent arguments that are creatively presented. The emotional appeals, sure sense of storytelling, and strong songwriting and performance demonstrate once again that Tori Amos, while still far kookier than the average musician, is an artist that is more an artist than a cult leader or spacey feminist.

Strange Little Girls is comprised of twelve cover songs written by a variety of men about women, and reworked so that each song’s focus is shifted and retold from the point of a woman with little or no lyric alterations. To accompany each song, Amos has donned wigs and costumes, and enlisted the aid of long-time makeup collaborator Kevyn Aucoin and photographer Thomas Schenk to provide an illustration of the woman represented in each song. In addition, Amos has collaborated with acclaimed fantasy author Neil Gaiman (author of the Sandman series), who has contributed a yet unreleased short story for each character.

Although it is clear that Strange Little Girls is a side project, it stands its ground against previous Tori Amos albums, including such classics as Little Earthquakes and Boys for Pele. Amos turns each song inside out, in most cases presenting a valid reinterpretation to the familiar. She reworks 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” into a slow, sparse track which brings out the viciousness behind the previously innocuously presented lyrics, “I keep your picture upon the wall, It hides a nasty stain still lying there. ... Ooh, you’ll wait a long time for me.” In one of the best tracks on the album, Amos completely reinterprets Neil Young’s lilting ballad “Heart of Gold” as a duet between banshee twin spies who mock Young’s search for a “sweet” wife and present the uncompromisingly powerful woman who still maintains her womanhood. In the most talked about track, Eminem’s “’97 Bonnie and Clyde,” Amos simultaneously brings out the virtuosity and the violence of Eminem’s lyric. However, devoid of Eminem’s original catchy music and replaced by a chilling, minimal loop and an eerily disembodied bedtime storytelling voice, the song forces the listener’s attention to the story of the murdered wife and the daughter who is being forced into being an accomplice in the murder of her mother. The track is not likely to be any listener’s favorite, but Amos clearly and effectively makes a point about the violence and misogynism so prevalent in some areas of rap.

Amos stays faithful to the original artists in some tracks such as Tom Waits’ “Time,” The Velvet Undergrounds’ “New Age,” and Joe Jackson’s “Real Men,” going so far as to present an androgynous character to accompany Joe Jackson’s song about men (and women) who challenge gender roles, whether or not they are actually homosexual or heterosexual: “What’s a man mean/Is he rough or is he rugged/cultural and clean?” In this and several other tracks, such as The Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” Amos widens her album to encompass not just comments about women, but also to make clearly political statements. In “Gun,” Amos retells the song from the point of view of the call-girl Mark Chapman spent time with on the night before he murdered Lennon. The trippy 10-minute track is accompanied by samples of speeches by her father, Reverend Edison Amos, George Bush, and George W. Bush about gun control, exposing the short-sightedness of such lines as George Bush’s comment that, “We must work diligently to keep this second amendment in place, for the individual with responsibility.” Similarly in her complete reworking of Slayer’s demonic “Raining Blood” and the Boomtown Rats’ 80’s track, “I Don’t Like Mondays,” Amos comments on senseless violence.

Although most of Amos’s reinterpretations seem fairly valid, a few are a bit less believable. The most obvious is her presentation of Depeche Mode’s love song “Enjoy the Silence.” Here Amos presents a somewhat farfetched case of brutality against women along the same lines as her interpretation of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.”

Part of what makes the album so fascinating is the focus on Amos’s music rather than her famously cryptic lyrics. In yet a new evolution Amos has explored even more areas of the keyboard family, including a Wurlitzer organ and a Rhodes keyboard, the latter used in the simply fantastic cover of Lloyd Cole’s “Rattlesnakes.” In two tracks, “Bonnie and Clyde” and “I’m Not in Love,” Amos forsakes her keyboard altogether and simply provides vocals. But fans of Amos’s Bosendorfer piano shouldn’t fret, as more than half of the album’s tracks feature the piano front and center. Although this collection is not likely to be anyone’s favorite, it is certainly an intriguing and unique addition to Amos’s increasing opus.