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Memory and Music: Tori Amos

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This woman’s music confounds me. There are times I hate it profoundly–when it’s nonsensical and self-parodic, when her annunciation is infuriating, etc. Then there are times when I’ll put a record on and feel it, the way you feel the best music you’ve ever heard–when she’s obviously brilliant and her idiosyncratic tendencies are what make her endearing. I’ve been listening on shuffle this afternoon (always an adventure) and the title track from Little Earthquakes came up. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard it, but it called me back to a lot of thoughts…

Even though I was a late comer, I got her records pretty much in order, starting with that one. It’s intricately tied to a lot of memories I have from that period (roughly 13-14). It’s such a perfect album for being that age–“Precious Things” is perfectly angsty, “Leather” is awkwardly figuring out sexuality, “Happy Phantom” has that fuck-it-and-you cheeriness that makes you want to dance in supermarket aisles to confuse the work-a-day staff. Then there’s “Me and a Gun,” which I still can’t listen to–one of very few songs I can say that about–and I have a certain admiration for that; putting an experience like that in a form that communicates it so well takes a lot. The album’s two best songs, though are the title track and “Mother,” each a towering seven minutes long. “Little Earthquakes” is this big, heavy rumination about getting around difficult moments (“Oh, these little earthquakes, doesn’t take much to rip us into pieces”)–I love the way it lumbers forward slowly and the chorus melody is wonderful. “Mother” distills a complex feeling very elegantly, a feeling of transition from one thing to another, excitement mixed with trepidation, the fear of losing one’s self, and the hesitant piano compliments some of her strongest lyrics. This has always been one of my favorite songs.

The best live version I could find of “Mother” (with a great intro)–

Then, around the same period, I got Under the Pink. I remember loving it at the time. I still think it has some very fine songs on it, this being one of them:

I’m still not sure what the hell she’s talking about for a lot of that, but it has that melancholic feel to it that some of her best work does. But listening to the rest of the album now, I don’t get a lot of it. There are some cool aspects to it–the broken down piano on “Bells for Her” is extremely effective, “Cornflake Girl” is catchy enough and “Yes, Anastasia” hits on some amazing moments, even if it does wander a bit (one of her longest songs at 9:33), but not much else really impacts me. I think this too may relate to memory. The time this was in heavy rotation was also the time I had my first “boyfriend.” It meant the world when it was happening, but with the benefit of a decade of hindsight, I have no idea what I saw in him–it’s not that I dislike him, it’s just sort of… eh. Which is how I feel about this record. It’s nice to remember, there were some good times, but… I dunno, it’s just not quite there.

Boys for Pele, which I got for my 15th birthday, is another matter. This is a willfully difficult album–70 minutes, 18.5 songs (the first track is two songs), an actual bull on backing vocals (“Professional Widow”), etc–which means I tend to feel rather strongly either way about it. Take “Mr Zebra,” (performed here on Jools Holland)

There’s a certain preciousness to that, which sometimes you want to step into because you’re feeling smart and silly, but sometimes you want to bitchslap across the face for exactly those qualities. The best tracks on this album come as it gets close to its end. “Doughnut Song” is the most quietly spiteful thing I’ve ever heard and I can think of a couple people I’d like to play that for. Then, two tracks later, “Putting the Damage On” is the flipside to that–it’s shaking and vulnerable in a way that’s difficult to capture without overdoing it (not to mention the great horn part). Naturally, that one got a lot of rotation after that first relationship ended, which makes listening to it now somewhat awkward–I see me saying “Boy, you still look pretty…” and it feels weird. A lot of things get stirred up by this record, which is both a wonderful thing and really annoying.

Also, I can’t not mention this (since it’s off that album and tied to that time). The previously mentioned young man was a big Tool fan, so this was a weird marriage of our worlds. It’s odd to have that represented so clearly.

From the Choirgirl Hotel I also got for my 15th birthday, but I didn’t get into it until after I explored Pele, which makes sense–it’s less indulgent, but much darker:

That’s actually one of my favorite videos from a purely video standpoint–all these little clues to a mystery that never gets solved, beautiful and hellish all at once. That’s sort of what trying to remember this is like. There are great memories like dancing to “Raspberry Swirl” in my bedroom with a …friend, but then there’s “Playboy Mommy” and the rather difficult personal associations I have with that (that I don’t want to get into in a forum like this). This is a record that’s gotten older with me–“Jackie’s Strength” I understand way more now than I did then, for example (it’s about the perspective of age, among other things), which is interesting. But it’s frustrating because I don’t know where it’s going and I don’t always have the patience for it–“iieee” just came up and it’s like “oh, shut up.” I don’t feel as strongly about this as I do Pele, but that’s what makes it more dangerous–it’s like that subtle drug that you don’t notice until well after it’s kicked in. Part of me wants to say it’s my second favorite behind Scarlet, but I don’t know if I can do that, for that reason. I’m not really sure how to feel about it.

I got To Venus & Back a bit after it came out (thinking about it, I don’t actually remember when…) and I still think it’s generally underrated in her canon. The live disc is this or that… “Cornflake Girl” and “Little Earthquakes” have great versions, but “Waitress” doesn’t need to go on for nearly 11 minutes on a disc. The album itself has some throwaways (“Datura”) that I’m fairly indifferent to. But this song, on the other hand (particularly this version) IS sex:

That restrained yell at the end (3:30 or so)… oh god. So there’s that. “Glory of the ’80s” is my sophomore year of high school summed up in a soundtrack–it’s got that weird confidence/insecurity thing (“then when it all seemed clear, just then you go and disappear”) when all the weird things in my life started to happen all at once. “Riot Proof” has that kind of confident swagger I tried (and failed) to adopt around this point, “Concertina” is quite pretty, etc. Yet all that said, the album feels like a high schooler in that it’s overproduced–you can tell there’s something good in there, but it’s trying to figure out what it is. When it’s over, you feel like a lot happened, but you don’t really remember most of it, things that are significant at the time don’t necessarily have a lasting impact (thank God).

Strange Little Girls is… well, strange. Speaking of not knowing what you want to be, it’s really weird hearing somebody as distinctive as Tori is playing the material of others and, in many cases, completely turning it inside out. It’s the only album of hers that has a song on it I really, consistently hate. You can’t do that to “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” I get what she’s going for, but you can’t do that. No. “Time,” “Enjoy the Silence,” and “I’m Not in Love” aren’t terrible, but they lose the character of the originals. “Raining Blood” and “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” are interesting interpretations (and the latter is extremely unsettling) but I can’t actually say I really like them, etc. The one really sublime moment on this album is “Rattlesnakes.” This doesn’t quite capture it, but it’s close:

The original (Lloyd Cole, in case you were unaware) is a great song, but she does something to it–pulls it back and makes it a more complex character by making it first person, despite the language. It’s getting difficult to articulate (partially because I’m getting tired), but that stuck with me. Again a lot of the lyrics hit close to home, but there’s a sense of understanding that Lloyd couldn’t quite communicate even if he had it.

Scarlet’s Walk came at an interesting time for me. It’s an album that is, in part, about traveling across America, which came out a couple months (5) before I *did* travel across America. It has songs about being friends with those in the adult industry (“Amber Waves”), and I *was* friends with some of those ladies. That sort of thing. Maybe that’s why I find this as interesting as I do, but it’s her most fascinating album narratively. There’s also the sense, for the first time really, that she’s stepping outside herself on this and I like that–it’s exploring the world beyond. That’s what I was doing too. “Another Girl’s Paradise” is an amazing track (listen to that chorus melody), “Wednesday” has a kind of blustery business to it, and so on. Characters have names like “Carbon” and “Crazy” (with a song dedicated to each), events don’t mean any one thing, but work on levels. This is my favorite of her albums. The music flirts dangerously with being flat, but it never is–it’s subtle, but actually quite varied.

Incidentally, the lead single for this also produced a video that should’ve been in my “WTF Videos” post:

The Beekeeper, however, is flat. Maybe I’ll figure it out someday, but it’s been 3 years and it’s still fairly impenetrable and overlong (just shy of 80 minutes). I don’t have a lot to say about it. This came out as my taste was branching outwards and was the moment I felt I’d outgrown her, where endless self-examination (which is what this album feels like) was kid stuff. I wanted to erase that past. I didn’t listen to her for some time. I wrote her off.

And then she came out with a perfect pop single.

So I bought American Doll Posse. It’s also somewhat overlong, but definitely more interesting–I’m still sorting through most of it. I don’t know if I’ve listened to the whole record in one sitting beyond the first time. In that sense it’s a nice distillation of how I feel about her now. There are some moments of incredible impact (“Girl Disappearing” on this album), but she requires a lot of patience to deal with, which I don’t always have. She can be overly obvious (“Yo George”), annoyingly inscrutable (“Programmable Soda”), pleasantly sassy (“You Can Bring Your Dog”), etc.

I think what’s most interesting, and the closest thing this long-ass post has to a point, is the realization that, ten or even five years ago, I would’ve sat down with this record and plucked every word apart until I was woven all through it and each song had something attached to it. And now I don’t do that. There was a time when she was my #1 artist, now she’d probably make the top 20, but not the top 10, necessarily. It’s a similar feeling to what I was talking about in the “Ten Years Gone” post, but even more crystallized with one particular artist–to watch her change as I’ve changed (even though the time was a little skewed at the start there). And because her music is so inherently personal, that comparison gets accentuated even more. Tori refers to her songs as though they were living people and I can understand why–people have a strange dialog with music, you share memories and feelings, you come together with it and grow apart from it like you would a friend. That’s not a novel observation, but it’s a strange thing to actually think about, especially with someone as distinctive as she is, because that distinction makes perspective all the more important (scroll down to the bottom), where more general music is exactly that.

Thinking about it, I know I’ll keep buying her records as long as she keeps making them, in the same way I keep in touch with a few old friends from high school. Even if she’s never going to mean to me what she once did and I get pissy with her a lot, there’s enough history there to appreciate growing up together.

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3 Responses

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  1. I’ve never been able to really get into her stuff. I dunno. I guess it’s just not my cup of tea on one level or another.

    But:

    Marshall B

    June 27, 2008 at 3:25 am

  2. Hah, yeah, I’ve heard that. It’s an interesting take, though I have to say I like the original a bit more (nothing against Jawbox, mind).

    And no, I can see where it wouldn’t be your thing… I guess it’s a matter of coming at it from the right angle, but she’s that type of artist you kinda have to either love or hate, I think. If it doesn’t hit you the right way, it doesn’t hit you at all.

    Sarah K

    June 27, 2008 at 3:33 am

  3. I really like this post. But I’m very nostalgic and cheesy and sentimental sometimes. It’s always interesting to consider relationships, I guess you would call them, with an artist. I don’t think I have any that have lasted ten + years, though.

    Jacob Z

    June 27, 2008 at 12:12 pm


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