SOUNDTRACK: TORI AMOS-Abnormally Attracted to Sin (2009).
It’s been almost a decade since I was blown away by a Tori Amos album. I feel like she has really been so engaged in the concept of her albums, that she has lost track of the tunes. And while I don’t hate anything she’s done in the last few years, I was seriously getting to the point where I wasn’t sure it was worth getting her new releases.
But I was pleasantly surprised with Abnormally Attracted to Sin. The opening track “Give” reaches back to some of the cool trip-hop stuff from from the choirgirl hotel. And, the wild guitar work is such a welcome change. It’s followed by “Welcome to England” which has a cool bass line that also makes me think of choirgirl era Tori (I saw her about three or four times on that tour). “Strong Black Vine” is middle eastern tinged, with a cool percussion-filled bridge. But my favorite part is the dirty-sounding “baby” that opens the chorus. The chorus also calls back to Boys for Pele era stuff where she used multiple backing vocals (from herself) in the choruses.
“Flavor” brings in some mellowness (and sounds like she was recorded in outer space). “Not Dying Today” is definitely a silly song (and the one that mentions Neil) but the weirdo bassline is so catchy I am totally hooked by it (I’m also not sure if it says something about me or her that I thought the line was “Neil is thrilled he can say he’s Canadian” (when in fact he’s thrilled that he can say he’s mammalian (I’m not sure which is weirder)). This also leads to a weird little spoken bit. The whole thing feels very 80s to me. But in a good way.
“Maybe California” is one of her piano songs. When listening to it by itself, it’s quite enjoyable. But I think it kind of slows the album down after those openers. Tori has a lot of gorgeous piano ballads (“Northern Lad” still blows me away), and this one is good but not great. “Curtain Call” is kind of a dud, but it has a great chorus. And that’s what a lot of the rest of the album feels like for me. Each song has one part that really hooks me, but it’s usually not a whole song that keeps me.
“Fire to Your Plain” is another bit of a dud. The little keyboard hits don’t do this song any favors. “Police Me” has cool guitars and weird sound effects and could have been a choirgirl B-side. (Although, again, there’s a part after the chorus which is very cool). And then comes “That Guy.” I want to like this song so much. The lyrics are fun, the sound is very torchy and music hall, but I just find it to be ultimately as nondescript as the title.
The title track has a great weird sci-fi keyboard sound, with cool guitars. But this is yet another example of “Why does she pronounce words like this now?” If you listen to her earlier records, she had a full command of the English language. So, why does this song start out with her saying “Impeccable Pec-a-dell-o” (when we all know it is pecadillo). And what on earth happened to the words in the chorus? This is the title song. Why does it sound like she’s singing “I’m marmalade. I trah yak toosee.” Sure, once I realized it was the title track I could figure it out, but Jesus, woman, what happened to you? (That aside, the song is pretty cool, especially the quiet but bitchin guitars in the way back). “500 Miles” is a cute song. I sort of don’t like it but the chorus is so frikkin catchy that I can’t turn it off.
The end of the disc feels kind of tacked on to me. “Mary Jane” is a weird one. It sounds like an extended version of “Mr Zebra” from Pele, (which I loved, but it was only a minute long), with all kinds of weird lyrics getting tossed around. It does seem odd to hear her singing about pot, but whatever. “Starling” sounds great but just never really catches me. And “Fast Horse” starts out so great: the riff is very cool, but I don’t care for the direction of the chorus. (And the Maserati bit more or less kills the song off). “Ophelia” has awesome potential of being one of those affecting piano songs, but rather than pulling out all the stops with a kick ass chorus, it just sort of wanders around (I wonder if I’d change my mind about this song if it weren’t so close to the end). And the disc ends with “Lady in Blue.” This is definitely one of the weirdest songs she’s ever done. And I sort of love it. The sounds she’s twisting out of her organ are insane. It sounds like her speakers are at the bottom of a pool. And the chord choices are unexpected. She really stretches this weird sound for all its worth (including the most egregious of her pronunciations problems: “What es layuft is right.” Really, Tori, emphasis is one thing, but it’s not cool to make the words wrong). But anyhow, this undersea adventure stretches out for over 4 minutes, and I’m just about to throw the disc against the wall because it seems like it will never end, and I’m in some kind of trippy suffocating nightmare (in which you kind of like what’s happening at first and then you realize that the pillowcase they put over your head is really a plastic bag) but then she kicks in a solid piano riff and the song absolutely rocks out for the next three minutes. It’s confident and infectious and ends the disc on a fantastic note. If that early section were about 2 minutes shorter this would be one of my favorite Tori songs ever. But I keep reaching that take-the-disc-out! moment before the greatness kicks in.)
My biggest problem with the disc is that (as with past discs) at 75 minutes it’s just too damned long. Again, I can’t pick a least favorite song because they all have parts that I really like, I would just like to put the cool parts together and get rid of twenty minutes of the blahs.
The other problem is that I really don’t know what Tori is singing about half the time. When I first got into her, I was drawn by her lyrics, which were weird but also evocative. I didn’t really know what she was singing about exactly back then, but I had a pretty good idea. However, lately it’s just all weird abstractions and general concepts.
I know that I fell for Tori back when she was writing emotionally naked songs. She was sexually honest and was a breath of fresh air in 1992. And, sure I wish she would make albums like she did back then, but I know artists need to grow and expand. And it would be frankly creepy to hear 2009 Tori, wife and mother, singing about guys who can’t make her come. Right? I mean, I found her “MILF” line on a recent album to be rather disturbing. And, I also don’t think I want to hear about the highs and lows of motherhood and parenthood. So, personal stories are out, I guess. Alas. I just hope she can get a little back down to earth (and not necessarily need to be so “wicked” all the time).
The final gripe relates back to what I said in the beginning. This disc is littered with pictures of Tori in various costumes, evidently acting out scenes from her songs. The bonus DVD is full of videos for each song. But each video is basically just her in some outfit and wig wandering around in various places. It’s a strangely egomaniacal video collection even for a musician. But so yes, she clearly enjoys this role playing exercise that she’s been on since Strange Little Girls, but it seems like so much extra time is being spent on these “personas.” I don’t care which personality wrote the sing, I just want it to be good. And I just miss the old Tori.
I also don’t like to criticize people physically, but I feel like she also looks less pretty than she used to. After watching 70some minutes of those videos of pretty much just her, I felt like she was too harsh or angular or, dare I say it, old looking. And I only mention it because she seems so focused on presenting these characters with wigs and make up and the whole shebang, but I think she doesn’t look nearly as pretty as she when she was just Tori, piano player.
But that’s no way to end a music review. Abnormally Attracted to Sin is certainly her best disc in a decade. It’s got some great songs and some great sections of songs. With a judicious editor and someone who can keep her on track when her words start drifting away from what they should properly sound like, (maybe it’s time to look for a producer other than her husband?) Tori could be well on her way to making another totally stellar album.
[READ: October 2009] Comic Book Tattoo
Sarah gave me this book for Christmas and I’ve been reading it on and off for about 10 months now. I finally finished the first read through and decided to give it a second go before writing about it. It took so long not because I didn’t like it but because it is a very awkward book. It is HUGE. It is the size of a vinyl LP, but is as thick as about 15 of them. And it’s heavy! I had to store it under the bed so I wouldn’t kill myself on it.
What I’m getting at is utter value for money ($30 retail).
But what is it? Okay, so it is a collection of comics that are “inspired” by Tori Amos songs. But let’s be clear, these are NOT IN ANY WAY illustrations of the songs. The stories that are created here have virtually nothing to do with the lyrics, in most cases. They seem to be inspired by the titles and maybe (sometimes) the mood of the songs themselves. In many cases, it’s hard to even see what the stories have to do with her at all. And, I have to say, it makes the whole collection that much stronger. Even if I love most of the songs that they draw in here, I wouldn’t want to “see” Tori’s songs. Rather, taking them as a jumping off point lets the authors and artists use what inspired them and ignore the rest. (more…)
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