The Village Voice
November 10-16, 1999

Added November 18, 1999

The November 10 - 16, 1999 issue of The Village Voice includes an interesting joint review of Tori's "to venus and back" and Fiona Apple's new album. Thanks to Richard Handal and BD for alerting me to this.

Fiona Apple: megamoodiness cut with mischief in the ballroom of


"The world is a piece of shit."

That observation, courtesy of Fiona Apple on the occasion of her
first MTV Award, suggests how Apple and Tori Amos, the moment's
prime purveyors of particularly female pop aesthetics, inspire fits
of both devotion and derision. It's the Extreme Metaphor, a trope
as excessive as an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo or a Puff Daddy
sample, and it's a key ingredient of their clit-pop, the female
singer-songwriter precursor to cock-rock's second cumming circa
Woodstock '99.

After years of multiclimactic success, the clit-pop boom is now
fucked/over, with recent releases from Alanis Morissette, Paula
Cole, Meredith Brooks, Indigo Girls, and maybe even Amos herself
sinking under the current teen-pop and metal-rap waves. Only Jewel
and Sarah McLachlan, the most femme of the platinum females, have
survived the year without surrendering significant chunks of their
mainstream followings. When women-in-rock shifted from movement to
trend, the backlash was bound to happen, and maybe it's necessary
for the survival of the species. Would second-stringers Cole and
Brooks have scored iconic hits in any other era than Lilith's
girls-with- guitars-are-good epoch?

As evidenced by the latest from Amos and Apple, post-Lilith
clit-pop is shifting focus from the shopping center of daily life
back to the bedroom of dreams. These albums favor passion, art, and
cult followings, and leave mainstream sales pitches to the
salesmen. Amos's To Venus and Back was originally planned as a
double-live package, then reconceived as half B-sides, and
ultimately transformed into a new album with a second disc of
concert obscurities and radically revised favorites, most of the
latter from '94's Under the Pink. The title of Apple's album-a poem
sometimes recited by the singer in concert-says it all and then
some: When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What
He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win
the Whole Thing 'Fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter
When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own
Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You
Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall
It Won't Matter, Cuz You'll Know That You're Right.

See what I mean about the Extreme Metaphor thing? When you hold
your own hand, you tend to lose your grip on reality. Yet Amos and
Apple suggest the letting-go process allows you to get in touch
with your soul. Or something like that. It's often tough to grasp
what these musical mystics mean, and the ambiguity is both blessing
and curse. Unlike Patti Smith, whose classic tunes command a
directness her lyrics avoid, Amos and Apple are composers first and
rockers second. They don't always speak in hooks and punch lines,
although Apple's latest packs plenty of both, and Amos has
certainly written her share, as that crowd-pleasing "Precious
Things" line-"Just because you can make me cum doesn't make you
Jesus"-reminds us within the live disc's first few minutes. Yet few
chart acts of any gender or genre communicate as deeply through
their instruments and voices as this pair, whose desire-drenched
pianos and pipes seem online with the divine.

To Venus and Back is Amos at her most demanding, and not just
because of its 123-minute playing time. The studio disc presents
little of the symphonic filigree that sweetened her previous four
albums, and the mostly plugged live set is similarly trebly, even
harsh. Trip-hop's growing influence bends the music toward furry,
gnarly textures, not laid-back grooves, while the tunes are slight
by Amos standards.

That combo bespeaks the new material's original B-side mindset.
"Lust" is a simple piano ballad gone curvy from copious echo
effects. "Glory of the '80s" could've been a straightforward
rocker, but its gurgling arrangement nearly swallows her vocal. The
two-part "Datura" begins with a list of plants Amos grows in her
garden recited over a lumbering, tricky time signature, then shifts
into a looping shuffle while she chants "dividing Canaan" for
reasons that remain mysterious. The only cut with a coherent lyric,
"1000 Oceans," evokes every McLachlan weeper and would be sappy if
it wasn't for the real disappointments of Amos's career: This is a
woman whom radio avoids, yet she fills arenas. When she creates
something radio-friendly, it seems more fluke than calculation. And
radio still ignores her.

Whereas Venus serves as an obscurely lovey-dovey tribute to Amos's
new marriage, When the Pawn . . . comes across as candid
documentation of Apple's apparently troubled relationship with
Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson, who also shot the
album's first video, "Fast as You Can." Apple reveals severe
emotional messiness, yet remains self-aware and perhaps
self-defeatingly articulate about her insecurities and
shortcomings, which is very New York of her. You can hear the years
spent growing up on the Upper West Side, a child of performer
parents, melodrama in her blood.

Apple's arty predisposition and prodigious gifts allow this
22-year-old to wax poetic and make it rock because her delivery is
so dexterous and forceful. "Please forgive me for my distance/The
pain is evident in my existence," she pleads memorably on "To Your
Love," adding an additional "distance/resistance" rhyme for good
measure. Matching the fluid phrasing of classic jazz crooners and
poets to today's jarring confessions, her dusky alto spews venom as
if it was cinnamon honey flowing from her pretty mouth. Apple
offers 57 reasons why she can't be trusted, tells her beloved to
"fuckin' go" nearly as often, and fights with an intensity that
conceals wounded love beneath the spiteful barbs. She's a brainy
femme fatale straight out of codependent hell.

Such megamoodiness would be unbearable without a sense of the
absurd. So be thankful collaborator Jon Brion produces and
orchestrates When the Pawn . . . with a retrofuturist wit that
tickles the singer's urbane candor. Brion-responsible for much of
the instrumental character of debuts by Rufus Wainwright and Macy
Gray as well as Apple-references dry Beatle sonics while summoning
electronica's otherworldliness and hip-hop's street savvy. With its
verse, chorus, and bridge sporting unrelated rhythms, "Fast as You
Can" rivals recent Destiny's Child and Jordan Knight hits for
disjointed weirdness. Here and elsewhere, Apple approaches Amos
levels of keyboard mischief, and her self-deprecation is as sharp
as her amorous attack. "I know I'm a mess he don't wanna clean up,"
she bebops with newly improved intonation on "Paper Bag." The
whimsy peaks on "A Mistake," where our heroine escapes the weight
of mature expectations with intentional errors. "If you wanna make
sense, whatcha looking at me for?" she queries. "I'm no good at
math." Doh!

It isn't fair to compare Apple's benchmark with Amos's stopgap.
When the Pawn . . . capitalizes on its uneven predecessor's
strengths, whereas To Venus and Back summarizes the past while
adding a tossed-off present. Amos's reliably wayward discs always
get better with age, whereas Apple is still refining herself, her
album instantly engaging. Both clit-poppers inhabit islands of
mindful, willful adulthood in a fake adolescent sea. Those shallow
waters are OK to visit, but here is where I'd rather live, cuz
sometimes the world is a piece of shit.

Tell us what you think.

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