Review Summary: The confessional woman behind the piano shakes and moves the listener.
There once was a girl named Myra Ellen Amos. A minister's daughter of part Cherokee blood and part Christian upbringing. At the age of two she would stand by the piano and play the melodies she had heard from the other room in the family house moments earlier. Her parents knew she was clearly a gifted child and a scholarship at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music followed. She was five.
The following years of composing and studying proved to be a difficult time. The teachers were strict about the century-old curriculum. Myra Ellen was, however, enthralled by the temporary. The likes of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin were what she considered to be the next great thing in music history. An opinion that eventually got her kicked out of the conservatory. She was now eleven.
Years of uncertainty passed as the young teenage girl roamed street venues to play the piano and entertain small crowds. After going through restaurants, gay bars and hotel lounges she earned a local TV spot with her very first single "Baltimore". Her goal was now to make a career. After moving to L.A. she noted a friend's observation and had now named herself a "Tori". Tori Amos. She was twenty-one.
It didn't take too long before Atlantic Records picked her up on their label. Her first effort would be as part of the band "Y Kant Tori Read?". Heavily influenced by the record company and infused with most 80's clichés it was a massive flop. The following years would become a dark period of self reflection and a continuation of the turbulent life she had in L.A. But it would also culminate in a new piece of work. Her contract still had a few years left and in 1992 "Little Earthquakes" hit the shelves. She was twenty-nine.
This summary is far from essential for the actual album, but in the context of this review I find it to be an important accompanying piece. For "context" is what a review often outlines. Considering the magnitude this effort made in its wake there are plenty of contexts to draw out; this being merely one of them.
That is because Little Earthquakes is a landmark album. If not for the music then undoubtedly for the way it sometimes changed the lives of individuals - which it still does. That's clear the very second first track "Crucify" kicks in. A liberating single makes Amos' mission clear: It's time to bring out the shame and self-doubt in order to keep living.
And the lyrical content for it is sure to hit home for most people as it balances multiple fine lines. Obscure, personal references might appear, but the message of a song is often shockingly direct, pulling the listener in with a humorous, provocative sense of excitement. This is evident in the light-hearted "Leather":
"Look I'm standing naked before you
Don't you want more than my sex?
I can scream as loud as you'll last one
But I can't claim innocence..."
At the same time Tori sings of personal experiences that never go so explicitly detailed that they become private. This is an important part of the appeal with Little Earthquakes, with highlights such as "Winter" and "Mother": Aspects of the father-daughter and mother-daughter bond, respectively. The former is a classic fan-favorite that majestically builds up around a string section. A young girl fears of growing up while her father recalls dreams put on the shelf. The latter lurks more silently toward emotional points revolving around a woman's move from her family to a new man. Timeless tales one can easily drown into, especially when the songs are executed with Tori's tender compositions and furthermore; utmost sincerity.
And the sincerity runs through the whole album length. An essence of the artist sitting confident behind her piano confessing vulnerability. Themes such as the loss of love, sex, womanhood and religion are scattered seamlessly throughout and are essential for what Tori's trying to convey.
There's a diary-like quality to many elements found on Little Earthquakes. "Silent All These Years" is another well-known song. It starts with an imaginative verse accompanied with lightly ironic playing. The antichrist is yelling from the kitchen, others' opinions on her are well-known and in the next second she's a mermaid swimming in a guy's jeans that has another girl's name on it. It gradually becomes a different kind of strange, ending on an uplifting and graceful note; with the protagonist having found her voice.
Doubled wit the dominating presence of the piano, a baroque instrument, the songs often gain a nostalgic and rich quality, intensifying the listener's relationship with them.
But for all the talk about how the girl-behind-the-piano formula got a surprise resurrection with this release and, not to mention, the quickly dismissive Kate Bush-comparisons; there are "fuller" tracks. "Precious Things" is a raw blast that doesn't put the piano on the sideline, but shows the first traces of Tori using it as a hardcore rock instrument. It's one of the more openly dramatic and cathartic songs that utilizes vivid imagery to engage the listener after more than a few listens of her sensual, eclectic voice.
A very well-known trademark of Amos. Her ability to stretch her vocals toward an enticing energy. Something that's easy to see on a live show as she seems seemingly all ready to have sex with the grand piano that's being played. On "Precious Things", as well as other tracks, pain seeps through her voice, but simultaneously there are hints of passion, fragility and even ugliness.
The latter two are pushed to the front in "Me and a Gun". The penultimate á capella track on the record.
Tori Amos was raped at knifepoint. This occurred one night as she offered a ride home to the patron of a local bar. She kept silent about the incident for seven years.
The vocals are claustrophobic on this track, yet the space in between each line is vast in its emptiness. Following the silence is the ominous revelation of the titular track. The revelation that a fragmented person is formed, not by one severe trauma, but by several cracks that weigh one down a tiny bit more every time. And that is endlessly relatable.
But what is the ultimate feeling to gain from this? It is surprising that something that can be experienced as so emotionally draining instantly boosts the motivation - which pop should be doing in some form or another, explaining why a financial success perhaps wasn't inexplicable for this case.
Tori Amos has a confessional position on this album and she invites us into her old, creaky, baroque house with her musical textures. Its walls are covered with old and new photographs, the tables have familiar items placed on them and the air smells faintly of old wood. The many artifacts speak for themselves, making you chuckle along the way about how apparent a thread goes through everything. A story that took place in the household and the individual who carried thoughts through it. After a while you come to realize that it isn't a stranger's house, but, in fact, your own. That makes you soul-crushingly sad. But you're also happy. Because you've rarely felt alive the way you do now.
And for whatever highlight or low-point she would reach later in her career: Little Earthquakes is, both lyrically and sonically, as essential as a Tori album gets.
Post-review note: Tori Amos offers plenty of B-sides with each wider release. Some tracks are considered essential. Here are some:
Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana cover)
Here, In My Head
Thank You (Led Zeppelin cover)
Sugar (LE version)