Monday, October 15, 2012

Twenty years since Little Earthquakes

It has been twenty years since Tori Amos released her breakthrough album Little Earthquakes, becoming known as the fiery redhead at the piano.  To mark the occasion, she produced Gold Dust, a collaboration with the Metropole Orchestra of fourteen songs spanning her career with orchestral arrangements.  The orchestra is conducted by Jules Buckley and Tori's long-time collaborator John Philip Shenale gave the songs new string arrangements.

The arrangement improves upon opening track "Flavor" with a richer sound than the original.  The arrangement of "Precious Things" misses the mark, however.  One of Tori's best loved songs, "Cloud On My Tongue," gets wonderful treatment with the orchestra and is very moving.  It is the highlight of the album for me.  I'm glad "Marianne" is included, as it is one of my all-time favorites.  "Silent All These Years" is a natural choice for the album.  "Jackie's Strength" is the only song representing From The Choirgirl Hotel--unfortunately, as I can't stand that song!  "Programmable Soda" (from American Doll Posse) is a curious addition, as it is a bit of a throwaway, brief song.  "Yes, Anastasia" lacks the lengthy piano introduction of the original.  B-sides are represented with "Flying Dutchman" and "Snow Cherries From France."

Of the process of choosing which songs to include, Tori says in an interview with Rolling Stone, "I thought, 'We have to retain the essence of who these song-girls are.'  But yet, we have to also think about how to create a narrative where they can live together.  A lot of this was about picking songs that had different subject matter but could live in the world and feel as though they're a complete album."  Of the title track (a solid choice, from Scarlet's Walk), she explains, "I felt I needed something that could work as an album title and a flagship song that would explain what the work is, to hold all the other ones and to treat this like a memory box."

This release allows me to reflect on all of Tori's output, which is staggering in volume.  Says Tori in The Observer, "Making thirteen albums in the past twenty years requires a particular discipline.  There's a time to take a holiday and a time to take a pilgrimage and write."

I started listening to Tori's music when I was thirteen, around the time of the release of Boys for Pele.  Of course at that age there was a lot that Tori was singing about that was over my head but I knew I liked her music.  I was somewhat baffled by Pele for awhile; until the release of my all-time favorite Tori album--From the Choirgirl Hotel--when I was sixteen, I listened the most to Under the Pink.

Tori is very aware of the independent lives of her songs; it's like Jeff Tweedy sings in Wilco's "What Light":  "If the whole world's singing your songs/And all your paintings have been hung/Just remember what was yours is everyone's from now on."  From the Choirgirl Hotel helped me through one of the most difficult years of my life, and I am grateful to Tori for that.  As songs do, certain ones transport me back to a particular time and place, a particular frame of mind.

Songs can also take on new significance as time passes, which Tori acknowledges with Gold Dust, describing it as "a collection of new recordings of where [the songs] are now and who they have become."  She has long held Meet and Greets before her performances as her schedule allows, and listens to her fans' stories of how her songs have affected them.  She has spoken about how this dialogue is important to her and how she knows people come to her shows because of their own relationships with the songs.  She even speaks about her songs as though they were living, breathing beings.  Repeatedly described as kooky as she rose to popularity in the '90s, she is a true artist who trusts in her muses (whom she thanks in the liner notes of Gold Dust).

Tori & me at a Meet and Greet in Buffalo, NY, Oct. 2007
After 2001's Strange Little Girls, an album of covers, I took a break from following her for awhile, eventually picking up Scarlet's Walk and her compilation album Tales of a Librarian and delving back in.  Rolling Stone ranked Tori in the top five best live performers of all time, and I have had the pleasure of seeing her in concert eight times so far--in 1998 (I am so glad to have caught a date on the Plugged tour!), 2005, and then twice each of the following tours:  2007, 2009, and 2011.

I have not rated any of Tori's albums fewer than three stars (even Strange Little Girls, The Beekeeper, and American Doll Posse).  Every release has at least a few gems.  Many Tori fans would agree that output post-To Venus and Back or post-Scarlet's Walk doesn't usually measure up to her earlier work, but she continues to be incredibly creative.  Night of Hunters, in particular, was impressive.  Tori has not ceased to be innovative.

Gold Dust rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

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