Review Summary: A hurricane of black: Harsh, slick and danceable. It’s Tori Amos at her peak – and most enticing.
Tori Amos will, ultimately, quite possibly go down in history as the early 90’s “rock chick with the piano”, which is not necessarily a bad title. Her bare and confessional work done early in her solo career is revered, or, at the very least, considered to be an interesting piece of music in the pop cultural consciousness of this time. For another thing, her covers of loud rock songs, such as Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, uniquely showed off a quietly seething quality to the compositions. Even still; though many find “Cornflake Girl” and deeply personal piano confessions to be Tori Amos, it’d be a shame not to follow along a bit further in time.
After the previous, labyrinthine Boys For Pele
; with scattered and varied moments of instrumentation, Tori goes for the full effect of a band with From The Choirgirl Hotel
. A sense of this direction is clear in the first moment of the album. Guitars and percussion – the piano all absent and not entering before the chorus begins. And what is this? The first keyboard to makes its presence known is a looming synthesizer.
That’s not all. Things are taken a step further with second track “Cruel”; inky black like molasses, filling spaces with exotic drums, nasty bass and filtered vocals, all surrounded with slick electronic production. It’s seductive listening, for sure, and definitely in a more outwardly style than what Tori had previously done. “Raspberry Swirl”, nodding at the success of an Armin van Helden remix of her Professional Widow, is cheetah-like sexual approach to the dancefloor. And just take a listen to the raunchy, non-subtle rocker, “She’s Your Cocaine”, where she replaces the trademark deep breaths with sexual moans.
But despite of an overall accessibility and sexiness with many of the tracks, the emotional depth has not vanished. On the contrary. This time morphed into the simple and concrete, therefore all the more heart wrenching, event of Amos’ miscarriage. It leaves a heavy imprint on a significant portion of the album.
The approach is a fascinating mixture of both her provocatively direct lyricism and equally dividing near-abstract imagery.
On opener “Spark”, for instance, she sings of someone being addicted to nicotine patches. A ridiculous and sad dependency, in that it’s not even the real thing. Meanwhile, the album’s centrepiece, jazzy and haunting “Liquid Diamonds”, presents the vivid imagery of her unborn slipping away, accompanied by a constant, flashing drum loop. It is, however, toward the end, that the character study of “Playboy Mommy” dares to show the melancholy and tragedy at hand. A woman who keeps questioning if her daughter’s spirit left due to what kind of woman she was, but on the other hand, claims with confidence that the angels still can’t take her place as a mother.
“Somewhere where the orchids grow
I can’t find those church bells
That played when you died”
Harrowing stuff. Of the event she has described it sending her into the cold open with grief. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for changing things up musically and becoming more sonically adventurous with production.
“I i e e”, as an example, taps into fragments of thoughts and dreams, with the best showcase of lush and swirling instrumentation on the album, making it a particular highlight. It also displays Amos’ want for experimentation; treating the listener to unexpected – and loud – musical turns, all the while escalating in ritualistic pop-form. She confronts higher spirits about her loss and questions the idea of sacrifice. It could all easily feel heavy or far-fetched, but the pop tendencies of the track, and surrounding record, makes it all seem much more inviting. The crucial part still being the sense of experimenting, which is what makes the effort here differ from her later work, which could quickly end up being adult MOR pop.
But even tracks not directly dealing with this topic do revel in some cynicism and sweet sadness. Like the lovely “Jackie’s Strength”, all promising in sound, as if eager for the wedding bells to start ringing, already. This impression is, very interestingly, countered by Amos singing of preparing herself for the lies and deceit to happen, despite of whole-heartedly embracing happiness.
From The Choirgirl Hotel
is Tori Amos’ best album. It combines her strengths as a songwriter of personal, emotional journeys with her most full-fleshed, seductive and intoxicating pop palette. Though some of her other work have an airy vulnerability that’s more touching, a big part of the appeal about Amos has been the trauma and melancholy as an armour in showing strength of recovering. And there’s no other place she seems more willing to spill herself into the music, take it to unexpected places and shine as a bleeding, virtuoso artist than here. If you're fond of what pop music can do, then allow yourself to be sucked into the energy-fuelled, emotional maelstrom that is this album.
- Purple People