San Francisco Chronicle
May 3, 1998

Added May 5, 1998

There is an Album Review in the May 3, 1998 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle in the Datebook section. Thanks to Beth Winegarner and Joel Spitzer for alerting me to it.

3 stars

Tori Amos as Nasty -- and Creative -- as She Wants to Be

From the Choirgirl Hotel Atlantic, $16.98

Trying to decipher Tori Amos' songwriting is a bit like trying to spell out sentences in a bowl of alphabet soup. Just when you think you're getting somewhere, the words float away in a steamy ripple.

"She's addicted to nicotine patches," goes the odd and breathy refrain from "Spark," the first single from the maddeningly gifted singer-pianist's fourth album, "From the Choirgirl Hotel." A solemn waltz, the song is almost certainly about Amos' recent miscarriage -- "she couldn't keep baby alive," she sings, suppressing her ache with a melodic flutter -- though you'd never guess it from the rest of its lyrics.

Firmly established as one of the premier artists in rock, Amos has free rein to follow her muse as far across the plains as she pleases, well beyond the cramped corral of radio formula. Subjectwise, there seems to be no issue too personal for this intense preacher's daughter to tackle. Still, "From the Choirgirl Hotel," in stores Tuesday, is at least as commercially viable as "Under the Pink," the 1994 album that elevated Amos from wildly adored cult figure to wildly eccentric superstar -- without sacrificing so much as a wisp of the singer's celebrated idiosyncrasy.

Working for the first time with a core band (as opposed to a revolving roster of session musicians), Amos sequestered herself in a converted, 200-year-old barn in Cornwall, England, for this recording. Returning to the fold are Meters bassist George Porter Jr. and longtime Amos guitarist Steve Caton. And talented drummer Matt Chamberlain, a Seattle scene veteran and a current member of the avant-garde funk group Critters Buggin, was brought in to help express Amos' intuitive, body-conscious sense of rhythm.

The image of Amos and Chamberlain playing simultaneously, each isolated but watching the other sweat on close-up monitors, is strangely appropriate for the singer's erotically charged yet distancing music. "Cut it again," she mutters as the swooping psychosexual number "She's Your Cocaine" lurches to an abrupt finish. You don't have to be a man to catch your breath at that ambiguous threat.

On that song, Amos' forceful singing brings to mind the dynamic method work of her friend Polly Harvey. Another alt-rock acquaintance, Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, makes his presence felt on "Hotel," on which Amos melds a temperate industrial soundscape with one of her most divalike vocal turns to date. Reznor, you'll recall, once lent Amos his home studio -- the infamous facility built in the Sharon Tate house, where the Manson family wreaked its greatest havoc.

Though ghosts crowd the "Choirgirl Hotel," that's nothing new for Amos. Of particular note is "Jackie's Strength," in which she has the audacity to use the darkest day in the life of a certain president's wife as a songwriting device. Though it's as organic-sounding as anything Amos has done, "Jackie's Strength" has the heart-wrenching chord swells of '70s schmaltz-radio regulars like Barry Manilow or minor-key Abba. And the ploy works perfectly

--the song is one of the record's highlights.

Another is "Raspberry Swirl" -- a throbbing piano-pounder that plays to her writhing persona. On close inspection, this song suggests that men can't do for women what women can. "Things are getting desperate/ When all the boys can't be men," Amos sings, squeezing out air with her abdominal muscles.

She's nasty, and that's what her fans love about her. "From the Choirgirl Hotel" is another impressive piece of work from a performer who cares not at all about catering to the uninitiated -- and their numbers are dwindling.

-- James Sullivan

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