The Times 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 Times newspaper in the U.K.. Thanks to Mike Snowden, Lucy and James Chapman for telling me.

Tori under the covers

Tori Amos, the preachers daughter, has produced a curates egg with a typically kooky album of other peoples songs. Our critic is in two minds

Tori Amos
Strange Little Girls
(East West)
Love it, hate it, or both

It seems like more than two years since Tori Amos last wiggled about on a piano stool, legs spread in that weird, sexual way that somehow reminds me of marine life mating. In fact, it has been barely two years since Amos released her last album, To Venus and Back, but an awful lot longer since many people took very much notice of the preacher's daughter from North Carolina.

Having crashed into the charts almost a decade ago with the multimillion-selling Little Earthquakes a startling debut that saw her dubbed the new Kate Bush Amos has slowly fallen out of favour. The follow-up albums Under the Pink and Boys from Pele may have sold well, but they weren't a patch on Little Earthquakes. By the time Amos released 1998's The Choirgirl Hotel, Alanis Morissette had stolen her kooky crown.

In pop, there are a few well-worn ways for a fallen star to regain ground. The first is to put out a greatest hits album to remind fans how hot you once were. Of course, for your refound fame to last, you have to follow this up with a successful studio album. And if you could have done that in the first place, you needn't have bothered with a greatest hits.

A second way is to team up with another artist, preferably someone trendy from the dance scene. Amos has already done this, when she hired the American DJ Armand Van Helden to fiddle with her 1996 single Professional Widow. The remix king turned the track into Amos's only British No 1.

A third way to woo back fickle fans is to release a covers album.

Usually, this smacks of desperation. Pilfering other people's past glories implies an artist has run out of decent ideas of his or her own. The principal problem with cover versions, of course, is that if the original was good, it's hard to improve on. And if it wasn't, it's not worth covering. Moreover, songs that were truly special when they first came out seem somewhat sacred and are best left alone.

With Strange Little Girls, however, the 38-year-old Amos has stamped her mark on a dozen, diverse covers for the most part to striking effect. Ignore the singer's scatty, slightly deranged public persona; when it came to choosing tracks for the album, she was bang on the ball.

Bar 10cc's religiously reinterpreted soft rock ballad I'm Not in Love and Neil Young's much-loved Heart of Gold, Amos has stuck to songs that are familiar but far from sacred. So when she tackles the Beatles, she opts for the White Album's Happiness is a Warm Gun, rather than, say, Penny Lane. And when she takes on Eminem, it's the album track '97 Bonnie & Clyde instead of a huge hit such as Stan. Moreover, on Strange Little Girls, Amos swings boldly between musical styles. Who else would put Slayer next to Joe Jackson or the Boomtown Rats before the Beatles? As much as the choice of material, it is Amos's astonishing voice that makes the covers so compelling. One minute she swoops through the scales like a diva, the next she sounds like a small, frightened child. Amos's vocals have always been superb, if an acquired taste. It's the unstructured songs of her recent albums that have let her down.

Strange Little Girls opens slowly with a faithful version of the Velvet Underground's New Age, from their 1970 album Loaded. The soft, piano-backed track is fine until Amos begins her banshee-like wailing midway through. It's that sort of nonsense that has put fans off in the past.

Fortunately, there is far better to come. Her fragile covers of the Stranglers' Strange Little Girl, Depeche Mode's Enjoy the Silence and 10cc's I'm Not in Love are quite beautiful. She even rearranges Lloyd Cole & the Commotions' Rattlesnakes and improves on the original.

The songs certain to grab most attention are those that continue Amos's longtime obsession with guns her early single Me & a Gun told of her real-life rape at gunpoint. She turns the Boomtown Rats' I Don't Like Mondays into a violent lullaby lingering over the line "The lesson today is how to die" and sings the Beatles' Happiness is a Warm Gun from a female perspective that revels in the horror of America's gun plague.

There's also her contentious cover of '97 Bonnie & Clyde. Amos whispers her way through the Eminem song most often cited by his critics. In it, the rapper kills his wife, then takes his daughter with him to a lake to dump the body. Amos claims her aim was to open people's eyes to the horror of Eminem's music and fiddles a little with the lyrics to show she's not on his side. But by simply covering the song, Amos is cashing in on violence as much as Eminem. Still, it's a deliciously Psycho-like rendition, whatever her intentions.

Amos is gender-bending again on Joe Jackson's Real Men and Slayer's Raining Blood, examining her approaching middle age on Tom Waits's Time and rocking out not so successfully on Neil Young's Heart of Gold.

It's one of those albums where you'll hate some tracks and love others. But it's an Amos album that fans won't want to ignore.

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