Spin Magazine Album Review
Spin Magazine reviewed "to venus and back" and placed it on their web site sometime in September 1999. I am not sure when this review was published in the actual magazine however. You can also read the review below.
The fairy queen is back with her latest sprinkling of dainty dew drops entitled To Venus and Back, an incongruous double CD that exchanges Amos' classic sound for a more modern, packaged one guaranteed to both titillate and annoy her legions of loyal elves. When Amos wrapped up her '98 Plugged tour, in support of From the Choirgirl Hotel, she went back into her studio/home in Cornwall, England, intending to put together a b-sides album. What she came out with instead was an entirely new set of songs. To Venus and Back is separated into two discs: Venus Orbiting, which comprises the new work, and Venus Live: Still Orbiting, a live CD recorded during the Plugged tour.
Venus Orbiting feels a lot like the wild, younger sister of Choirgirl--Amos has thrown her unconventional methodology out the window, combining her enchanting piano melodies with raw electronic sounds that lack the heart and soul of previous work. Tori Amos is the rare musician with actual, honest-to-goodness talent. Her piano shtick has worked for the better part of this decade because Amos has the ability to unite her voice and hands in a matrimony usually reserved only for the best musicians. It is a shame then to say that Amos made a mistake in letting her talents take a back seat to the waves of electronica that are so dominant on this album. Her voice is completely drowned out at times, and many of Venus Orbiting's songs rely too much on the band. On Choirgirl the band accompanied Amos, here they engulf her.
Venus Orbiting's good songs, however, are very good, "Bliss," the album's first single, is about the strains of a father daughter relationship that finds resolution in acceptance; "Concertina" is a dreamy, circular piece in which Amos sings about being "the fiercest calm I've been." "Spring Haze" successfully combines the sorrowful sounds of an Irish folk song with Amos' gorgeous, flowing piano. "Suede," is the best incarnation of Amos' new dark and sexy sound that explore intimacy with stream of consciousness lyrics ("Call me evil/Call me tide is on your side/Anything that you want") while her sultry voice conjures up images of the mystical diva slowly slithering about her piano bench--the perfect union between lyrics, vocals, and production.
Then there are the moments when Amos sounds more like a paranoid android than an enchanting siren. It seems Amos got her hands on a distortion unit--and never let go of it. "Juarez," inspired by the rape and murder of hundreds of women in a small Mexican town, loses all reverence and effect when Amos' normally subtle and moving voice is rendered barely discernable, save the occasional melancholic "No angel came." "1,000 Oceans," the album's second single, is perhaps the most disappointing. Amos sings the mournfully clichÈ "I would cry 1,000 more/If that's what it takes/To sail you home" over completely uninspired keyboard work. She comes off sounding more like a Celine Dion-LeAnn Rimes rip-off rather than the fiery chanteuse we have come to know and worship.
What Amos has produced is a good album, but not a great one. For one, it doesn't have the cohesive theme that Little Earthquakes, Boys for Pele, or Choirgirl had. Rather, Venus Orbiting's lyrical themes are eclectic: There are songs inspired by Amos' experiences in 1980s L.A. ("Glory of the'80s"), her relationship with her new husband, ("Lust"), even one about the Empress Josephine, alone after her husband has been sent into exile ("Josephine"). These songs are mediocre at best, and with every listen one feels there are better, more piano-driven pieces underneath, desperately trying to free themselves from the constraints of technological bullies.
Venus Live: Still Orbiting, on the other hand, is about as near to perfect as a live CD can be. Recorded during the '98 Plugged Tour, the production quality highlights Amos' best asset: her voice. Though the album was recorded in various arenas, an air of intimacy is achieved that is rarely reached by most musicians. Fans will delight in the longer versions of some of their favorite songs like "Precious Things," which clocks in around seven minutes, and the ten-minute long "Waitress." Also included is "Cooling," a song that, Amos explains, was supposed to be on Boys for Pele until it told her to "fuck off" and never quite made it on Choirgirl. The song, she explains, talking about it as a person, likes to be played live--and she's right.
Amos' past as a piano bar musician is called to mind on such songs as the classic "Cornflake Girl" as her ability to improv and scat about makes you feel like your sitting in the back of a dark, velvety lounge. This is the musician at her best, alone at her piano, drawing on the crowd's energy for inspiration. Interspersed with the sounds of more girls screaming than a Backstreet Boys show, Venus Live is a both a greatest hits compilation for fans, and a primer on the world of the red-headed goddess for others.
Just as Venus is both a planet and a goddess, these albums show the two sides, present and past of Tori Amos. Venus Orbiting would be the spacey satellite, too reliant on technology to be accessible, while Venus Live is who the fairies have come to expect and adore: the goddess incarnate, more organic, down to earth, ever changing but not forgetting her origins.
Julie Ann Pietrangelo (Japietrangelo@hotmail.com)
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