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Beekeeper review from The Washington Times
February 25, 2005

Updated Sun, Feb 27, 2005 - 6:40pm ET

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Read a long review of The Beekeeper from the February 25, 2005 edition of The Washington Times.

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At the hive, respite from the struggle

By Philip Shelley

Tori Amos
The Beekeeper Epic

Like many music fans, I often publicly profess disdain for facile labels but privately rely on them as a handy way of sorting through -- and winnowing down -- what seems like a never-ending barrage of shallow, posturing and hopelessly derivative performers. This kind of wide-mesh classifying is accurate enough for the most part, but now and then, worthy artists inevitably slip through.

I had always found Tori Amos easy to pigeonhole and dismiss as a Lilith-era relic, a confessional kook who sang a little too forcefully about sex and a little too earnestly about mystical esoterica, accompanied by either her own overly precious "classical prodigy" piano playing or the mad gallop of her bordering-on-fusion rhythm section.

Yeah, she could play and sing, but I needed a Gen X Earth mother like a hole in the head. Let the dorm-room girls have her.

Then, one day, a dear female friend (no dorm-room girl, she) sat me down and forced me to actually listen to Miss Amos. For what seemed like the millionth time, I heard the famous opening piano figure to "Silent All These Years." But this time I heard her signature song as the obsessive and slightly homicidal compulsion of a woman who had spent nearly a decade playing top-40 hits and standards in sleazy cocktail lounges in front of leering drunks.

The lyrics still told the superficially wide-eyed story of a young woman "finding her voice," and the singing was indeed innocent and pretty as she sang, "Yes, I know what you think of me ... ." But there was something shockingly bitter and world-weary that seemed to rise up out of nowhere when she finished the line with "... you never shut up." There was nothing wide-eyed about the way she sang that. How had I missed it? It was even kind of witty.

Miss Amos turned out to be a truly thoughtful musical eccentric, a genuine human being trying to impose order on a scary and incoherent world, using the only tools she had at her disposal: her own personal experience and her beloved Bosendorfer piano. Restless and omnivorous, she seemed to be always on the move, musically and personally, and her reports from the front lines of her own life's struggle made for some of the most gripping and original recordings of the past decade.

Now, with her eighth studio album, "The Beekeeper," a newly anchored Miss Amos is for the first time sending out her dispatches from a fixed address, a home base. To extend the album's title metaphor, the wandering bee has finally found a suitable hive.

"Beekeeper" was written and recorded with Miss Amos' longtime rhythm section (Jon Evans on bass and Matt Chamberlain on drums) in a converted barn at her home in Cornwall, England, where the expat has lived for the past few years with her English husband, Mark Hawley (also her sound engineer), and their daughter.

That doesn't mean the album is a predictably contented middle-aged progress report on the joys of motherhood and domesticity. But it seems to emerge from a kind of hearth-bound tranquillity that robs both the songs and the performances of their characteristic immediacy.

It's as if Miss Amos had a little too much time to contemplate and refine the album's thematic structure (which seems to encompass the transience of human life, the pitfalls of romantic union, the political state of the world and the majestic but pitiless inexorability of nature) rather than just channeling directly from her formidable subconscious. It's her tidiest album, by far.

"Parasol," a languorous belly dance of a song, sets the overall mood and then rolls directly into the wah-wah-drenched "Sweet the Sting," which unfolds like a sultry come-on from a New Orleans back alley. Many of the arrangements feature a soothing blanket of Hammond B3 organ, layered percussion and even occasional gospel-flavored backing vocals on top of the usual bedrock piano.

It is not until "Barons of Suburbia," the album's fifth song, with its scattershot cascade of piano notes and medium-of-the-damned vocal outro, that the possibility of chaos upsetting the delicate order of the hive is actually demonstrated rather than alluded to.

The churchy soul number "Witness" is similarly (and reassuringly) unhinged, but for the most part, the songs display their guts in measured and subtle ways (the longing that tugs "Martha's Foolish Ginger" along; the humble gratitude that infuses the album's closer, "Toast").

Longtime fans may miss the way their heroine once held the knife's edge so thrillingly close to her heart, but "Beekeeper's" drama is like that of a peaceful back yard on a summer evening -- it's the little things that buzz out of the gathering darkness and startle you.

If on previous releases Miss Amos traveled unprecedented psychic distances to serve herself up to her listeners, who are we to begrudge her tacit invitation to come over to her place this time?

Posted by: Mikewhy

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