Tori Amos has had nearly as many musical facelifts as Madonna, incorporating simple piano and guitar in her earlier work, strong strings and harpsichord along the way, and electronic beats in the last decade. Those who have followed her usually agree that you'll appreciate one version over the other and will therefore repeat the refrain, "I wish she'd go back to doing music like ____."
Tori Amos has basically laughed off those requests; she was never a very commercial musician, and her days of being a singles artist passed with the 1990's. Her music has gotten denser (compare 1994's "Cornflake Girl" with 1999's "Suede" and then with 2009's "Flavor") and besides the drum machine, the atmosphere is darker, richer, and at this point nearly incomprehensible lyrically.
Sonically, the last ten years has been somewhat out of order, with Scarlet's Walk (2002) and The Beekeeper (2005) coming off now as strange diversions once you look at the experimental Venus and Strange that preceded. 2009's Abnormally Attracted to Sin seems like both a valiant effort to triumph over Alanis Morissette down for Awkwardest Album Title of All Time and as always, unapologetically state "This is where I am right now in my life. PS, Mary Magdalene-Male Patriarchy-Sacred Blood-Overextended Metaphor of Doom."
Her voice has definitely changed, has gotten older and maybe that shouldn't be so surprising when listening to her glorious shrieks on earlier material. A noticeable difference was in from the choirgirl hotel in 1998, and got deeper and grittier, most striking in Strange Little Girls (2001) where she used to take on different characters. It makes you wonder, did that "Heart of Gold" howl totally fuck up her voice?
"Give" features Tori in a sensual, mood with synth right out of Bjork's Homogenic. It sways like a cat, with a yearning yowl that is simply entrancing.
"Welcome to England" brings the synth strings on again, with a weary-voiced Beekeeper vocal, slurring a little like Loretta Lynn, and bleeding her "sh's" together. It's something that penetrated Beekeeper especially in its folkier moments (and usually those were the worst). It works for this song, but for casual (or just less forgiving), you may yell out "Damn it, Tori, will you please enunciatefor once?"
"Strong Black Vine" brings out some Abbey Road strings, and growl (yowl, howl, growl-- sensing a theme here?) not out of place on 1999's to Venus and back or 2007's American Doll Posse so if you've dug the last ten years, you'll probably dig this.
With a driving beat and urgent vocals, "Not Dying Today" takes a reprieve from the outer space sound. It features the requisite Neil Gaiman reference, creating a radio sensibility that still probably too weird for adult contemporary but not hip enough for top 40. Maybe if Lil Wayne came in for the remix.
Continuing her tour of the world (China, Ireland, Virginia, New York), the harrowing "Maybe California" is a sad reflection on a relationship: "I don't know when I stopped making him smile." It's a disarming moment on the record, and while not musically the same, it's at least as moving as 1998's "Northern Lad."
"Curtain Call" moves on a little slowly, but could be a strong contender once listened to enough. It has some paint-by-numbers Tori bits including phrases like "the ultimate consequence" and "the looking-glass reflects" but she shows a great deal of poise that again pulls you in. This is some of her best storytelling in years.
Not very well transitioned, "Fire to Your Plain" has distinctive synth again, and is actually pretty funky. This actually could pretty easily be remixed, and made ready for casual fans (as so far, the album has been quite "Deep Cuts" heavy).
Less stirring is "Police Me," which (arguably like other tracks on this or other Tori albums) sounds like Tori wrote down the title first and then worked a song around it. Musically it's not bad, but the "Police yourself/Police yourself/Police me" is irritating. It's probably the worst track, which is disappointing because the instrumental sounds like it really could've been amazing.
The lilting, sway of "That Guy" comes out of left field at this point. Vaguely carnival-sounding, it's got a fun quality to it, but doesn't really go very far, and the decision to make it so light is not clear. It goes on a bit too long as well, not supporting the middle of the album very well after a pretty strong first third.
The swirling, unfocused title track floats by on iron wings, again dragging the album down a bit and again aping some Bjork and Esthero moments. It's not bad per se, just overmixed; too much is happening and the vocals come out foggy.
The sunny, middle of the road "500 Miles" reinvokes Beekeeper and rounds out the middle sludge. It is quickly forgotten once the cabaret "Mary Jane" begins and swerves a bit too briefly. It's familiar a Tori pattern ("Velvet Revolution," "Wednesday," and "The Wrong Band" are its older sisters) but a welcome one.
"Starling" glides by strong, and "Fast Horse" picks up the album again, successfully (this time) merging more accessible pop music with Tori's trademark disjointedness. The bass is especially appealing.
"Ophelia" reminds of the post-Scarlet's Walk EP (Hidden Treasures) and less particularly interesting. It's too terribly true that Tori has more songs on her albums than she should, and this is another case of wouldbe culling. It's pretty and all but is not distinctive, only standing apart from the others because it has a hookless meandering. It's a big stop in the road when things were getting going again.
Nearly industrial, "Lady in Blue" ends the album in a darkly ethereal way. It doesn't appear to be a particularly logical way to end it all, even though it's lovely. It is indeed a blues jam from the dark side of the moon, and 2 thirds in changes direction to a more piano-based track, remaining as nefarious as ever.
Tori, who was never consistent (but brilliant), has kept that quality alive, and her exploration nets herself some gorgeous, invigorating numbers as well as some uninteresting bits. However, considering the flexibility of Tori's music and her fans, you can be assured at least a bunch of folks will love what I hated and vice versa.
Download This: "Give," "Fire to Your Plain," "Maybe California," "Lady in Blue"