Boston Phoenix
September 20-27, 2001

Added Sept 25, 2001

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Tori's Strange Little Girls album was reviewed in the September 20-27, 2001 issue of the Boston Phoenix weekly in the U.S.. It was reviewed along with the new Macy Gray album. Thanks to Brian, JGizz, Raquel, Michelle and Don Burgess for telling me. I only include the Tori part of the review below. Tori was also on the cover of this issue of the Boston Phoenix with a large photo of her "Happiness" character.

Strange little girls
Tori Amos and Macy Gray

Tori Amos is not an artist whose livelihood at this point, 10 years into her career as a solo performer, depends on the usual avenues of pop stardom like commercial airplay. Radio hits have never played a big role in the marketing of Amos, and neither have MTV videos. Instead, it was the notoriety surrounding her controversial debut, 1991ís Little Earthquakes (Atlantic), which included an a cappella recounting of her own rape experience ( " Me and a Gun " ), plus the sheer force of her enigmatic yet alluring personality that initially connected Amos with whatís become a loyal cult audience thatís about a million strong (each of her albums has moved more than a million units). And itís been her ongoing willingness to put her artistry on the line combined with her ability to tap into new sources of inspiration that has kept her in business over the past decade. In short, at least to the million-plus fans sheís got out there, Amos is the real deal. Period. Indeed, releasing something deemed too commercial is often the worst thing an artist in her position can do.

Thereís no danger that Strange Little Girls (Atlantic) will be mistaken for a facile attempt to woo modern-rock-radio programmers or even to reach out to anyone who hasnít already met her halfway. If anything, the disc is a step in the other direction by an artist who seems to understand that hit singles are not necessarily a crucial part of her success. In a music business that appears once again to be relying more and more on one- and two-hit wonders, Amos is that rare thing: an album-oriented artist. And Strange Little Girls, which finds her interpreting an eclectic mix of tunes penned by other songwriters, reflects the degree to which she seems to appreciate her audienceís desire both to be challenged by and to maintain a certain degree of intimacy with her.

Amos is no stranger to cover tunes. Early on in her career she gave fans several revealing glimpses of her musical background by recording with just her voice and piano an intriguing trio for the 1992 Crucify EP (Atlantic): Led Zeppelinís " Thank You, " Nirvanaís " Smells like Teen Spirit, " and the Rolling Stonesí " Angie. " When you consider that back then Amos was being treated, not unfairly, as a Kate Bush disciple, it seems clear she chose these covers to make the point that there was a healthy dose of guitar grit flowing through the rock-and-roll veins of this piano-playing dream-pop diva. The Zeppelin tune also allowed Amos to acknowledge her hair-metal past as the frontwoman of the horribly named í80s group Y Kant Tori Read; the Nirvana song reminded us that her taste in guitar rock had undergone some major, uh, improvements. (Two years later, she released another EP, God, with three more covers: Joni Mitchellís " A Case of You, " Billie Holidayís " Strange Fruit, " and Jimi Hendrixís "If 6 Was 9.")

Strange Little Girls isnít simply a guided tour of Amosís record collection. In fact, it isnít meant to reflect her influences and/or inspirations at all. Although the thread that ties the discís dozen tracks together isnít immediately visible, Strange Little Girls is a full-fledged concept album inspired by the same gender politics that have fueled her solo work from the start. And what the album may lack in outright commercial appeal, it makes up for by delivering the kind of bold statement thatís bound to generate some sensational press.

The material here ranges from old tunes (the Beatlesí " Happiness Is a Warm Gun " ) to new ones (Eminemís " í97 Bonnie & Clyde " ), from well-known classics (Neil Youngís " Heart of Gold " ) to cult favorites (the Velvet Undergroundís " New Age " ) to fairly obscure surprises (the Stranglersí single " Strange Little Girl " ), from piano-friendly ballads (the Boomtown Ratsí " I Donít Like Mondays " ) to guitar-based rockers (Slayerís " Raining Blood " ). What every song on Strange Little Girls has in common is that it was written by a man. Amosís interpretations can take a fair degree of liberty with the arrangements, particularly when it comes to songs that were guitar-driven in their original incarnation, though sheís joined on the album by guitarist Adrian Belew (as well as by drummer Matt Chamberlain, who co-produced the disc). With its pounding drums and abrasive slide-guitar lines, " Heart of Gold " is almost unrecognizable as the Neil Young song, and Slayerís " Raining Blood " becomes a meditative ambient piece.

But the conceptual framework of the album has less to do with how the songs are reworked than with who is doing the reworking, because, as Amos has explained in interviews, she sings each song not simply from a womanís perspective but from the point of view of a particular fictional female character whom she has invented. The discís artwork even includes a striking series of in-character photographs of Amos dressed and made up to play each role.

For the most part, this aspect of Strange Little Girls amounts to little more than an entertaining subtext and a chance for Amos to play dress-up. " I Donít Like Mondays, " the Boomtown Rats tune about a 1979 San Diego school shooting written from the point of view of the shooter, is already a role-playing exercise, as well as a piano-based tune. So itís hard to imagine how Amosís conceptual approach would differ from just a regular cover. And her extended interpretation of " Happiness Is a Warm Gun, " which features spoken-word samplings of both President Bushes and her father on the right to bear arms, as well as readings from a newspaper report of John Lennonís assassination, seems to have more to do with gun-control issues than with anything involving gender. But thereís no denying the chilling power of her reading of Eminemís " í97 Bonnie & Clyde, " which is notorious for being the track where Marshall Mathers fantasizes in vivid detail about murdering his wife (as opposed to the one where he engages in a bit of gay bashing). In a near whisper, and backed by little more than a slight beat and a looped string section, Amos uses her own naked vulnerability to give flesh-and-bone reality to the cartoonish brutality of the original. Itís not catchy enough ever to end up on commercial radio -- not by a long shot. At the same time, itís hard to ignore in a way thatís almost certain to keep Amos in the spotlight as she enters her second decade as a solo artist.

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