Guardian newspaper (U.K.)
September 14, 2001

Added Sept 20, 2001

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Tori's Strange Little Girls album was reviewed in the September 14, 2001 edition of the Guardian newspaper in the U.K.. It received a 4 star rating! Thanks to rubyredgrl, Neil a.k.a. Arnel and Lucy Townsend for telling me.

CD of the week

Tori Amos takes on Eminem, Lou Reed and Slayer for a set of covers. Brave - but utterly disturbing, says Alexis Petridis.

Tori Amos
Strange Little Girls
(East West)
**** (4 stars out of 5)

There is a much-vaunted theory that suggests rock and pop music is currently dumbing down with a brazen eagerness that would shame a Channel 5 programmer. Just as television's high-minded Reithian model has been pushed aside by Touch the Truck and Beaver Espania, so American alternative rock has replaced Nirvana's existential loathing with Limp Bizkit's knuckleheaded "sports metal" and the Bloodhound Gang, whose most recent album was called Hooray For Boobies. There is no longer room in the charts for the situationist conceptualism of the KLF or the Pet Shop Boys' droll ironies.

These days, the singles chart is strictly the province of boy bands, novelty dance hits and tabloid celebrities. And then there's the world of the female singer-songwriter. A decade ago, Tori Amos was a multi-platinum artist. She wrote complex, provocative songs about rape, masturbation and hallucinogenic drugs. By the mid-1990s, she was replaced in the public's affections by the featherweight angst of Alanis Morissette and Jewel. In turn, they have been superseded by artists such as Nelly Furtado, who is neither provocative nor angsty, but who is prepared to splash around in a mudbath in her current video.

The news that Amos's latest album is a collection of cover versions seems unlikely to send her former fans stampeding back to the shops. A bad smell hangs over the whole province of covers albums, the result of wretched past efforts including Siouxsie and the Banshees' Through the Looking Glass and Duran Duran's Thank You, an album so ill-conceived it killed the band's mid-1990s comeback stone dead. More often than not, the covers album is musical semaphore, a desperate SOS that reads: "We have run out of ideas, please advise."

If Strange Little Girls has a problem, however, it's a surfeit of ideas. The concept - songs written by men about women, reinterpreted by a woman - is fascinating, but overcooked. Amos claims each of the songs represents an individual woman's personality. The CD booklet features Amos wearing costumes to represent the "personalities" behind each of the 12 songs. It's silly and didactic. For the Boomtown Rats' murder saga I Don't Like Mondays, she dresses as a policewoman. For one of the album's most recherche song choices, Slayer's Raining Blood, she adopts the beret and Gauloise of a French resistance fighter. Listen very carefully, she will sing this only once.

Thankfully, the album itself rarely slips into such daft self-indulgence. The songs are varied and intriguing, from Slayer's thrash metal to new wave obscurities such as Joe Jackson's Real Men. Amos's interpretations are remarkable and transformative, nowhere more so than on '97 Bonnie and Clyde, Eminem's saga of a man murdering his wife before their infant daughter's eyes. While Eminem's sing-song delivery lends the original a grim comedy, Amos mumbles the lyrics in a flat, unfeeling monotone. Her voice is backed by queasy strings. The end result is compelling, dramatic and impossibly harrowing.

If nothing on Strange Little Girls can match '97 Bonnie and Clyde for shock value, there are plenty of other disturbing inversions on offer. Amos sings 10cc's I'm Not in Love to a stark backing of drums and screeching feedback. In those surroundings, the lyrics sound less like an early hours seduction soundtrack than the disturbing ramblings of a stalker. She slows Depeche Mode's Enjoy the Silence to a diseased crawl. Her version of the Velvet Underground's New Age is similarly unsettling. A nervy vocal and chaotic, guitar-laden crescendo send Lou Reed's languid tale of unrequited love into the realms of obsession.

Reworking songs so drastically is a risky business, but Amos overstretches herself only twice. Turning John Lennon's oblique Happiness Is a Warm Gun into a song protesting US handgun laws seems hopelessly unsubtle and reductive. It rams home its message with snippets of a news broadcast about its author's murder. By contrast, her take on Neil Young's Heart of Gold is utterly impenetrable. It's a mess of distorted slide guitar and wailing goth vocals, apparently at odds with the song's lyric. Unsurprisingly, the CD booklet picture is no help in deciphering the meaning of the vocal histrionics: it features Amos in a lurex sweater and a curly red wig.

Strange Little Girls is a brave and uncompromising album - when it fails, it fails because it tries too hard. More often, however, Amos succeeds, casting strange and occasionally unrecognisable new shapes out of old material. She approaches songs intelligently, yet the results are visceral and intense, never dry or academic. In a market saturated with low-risk rock aimed at the lowest common denominator, Strange Little Girls is something of a rarity: an album that makes demands on the listener, but repays their efforts with startling and unique music.

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