Tori Amos yelled at me once.
I admit, it was partially my fault. I should have known better than to try to interview one of my favorite artists. I rarely get starstruck, but there are a few musicians, writers and directors that, I have discovered, can reduce me to a muddle-minded mess. Amos is one. I have been a bedazzled fan of her work since first hearing Little Earthquakes in 1992, still one of my top 10 favorite records of all time. Her passion and musicality still manages to trip the emotional switches that have long since dulled on the edges of decades of lousy pop cultural drivel.
So I should have realized that I’d have no intellectual questions to ask, no probing insights to glean. I really should have known that I’d just come off as another nervous fan, another drooling sensitive-male idiot. It’s kind of ironic, then, that Amos’ tirade was sparked by a question many, many journalists had apparently asked her: Why, Tori, did you not join up with the then-flowering Lilith Fair tour? He response was easy and obvious: I’m doing my own tour, she said, and I didn’t want to open up for Sarah McLachlan.
Fair enough. But then she decided to take out on me dozens of bad interviews in which that question had arisen. Two thoughts ran through my head during the ensuing six minutes. First, and most prominently, was this one: “This is probably my only conversation ever with Tori Amos, and she’s yelling at me.” That turned me several shades of pale, so much so that I barely recognized the second thought: “Man, she seems defensive.”
I admit that I had hoped for some behind-the-scenes disagreement between Amos and McLachlan, since both seem to come from different places where gender emphasis is concerned. McLachlan’s a pretty good singer that was elevated into some symbol of womanhood, all the while spouting lines like “Your love is better than ice cream.” She’s a pop songstress who used her brief stardom as a platform to open doors for other pop songstresses, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but Amos is, effortlessly, a living example of talent and passion making gender barriers irrelevant, and I thought she may have some insights on a tour that celebrated those barriers.
Her defensive reaction was interesting, in a shriveled pride sort of way, and I later thought that perhaps she considered herself better than anything the Lilith Fair was offering, and not in need of the tour’s help in any way. If so, she was right, even if she didn’t want to say so. This interview happened right after from the choirgirl hotel was released in 1998, an album that I hoped would be a minor hiccup in her career. Her three prior albums certainly put to shame the entire output of the Lilith participants, and she certainly couldn’t stick with choirgirl‘s simple, stupid songs and lifeless arrangements forever, could she?
I tell you this story partially as full disclosure. There is some tendency on the part of rabid fans of any artist to attribute a bad review to some personal vendetta on the part of the reviewer. Readers of the story I wrote for Face Magazine may remember that yes, Amos and I have talked, and no, it didn’t go especially well, and they may be tempted to put two and two together. Anyone who’s remained a faithful reader since then will tell you, however, that I’ve given the sad, slow decline of Tori Amos every chance to recapture past glories. I even graded last year’s cover album, Strange Little Girls, and 1999’s contract-swallowing To Venus and Back on a curve, forgiving ill-advised moments on both.
The free ride stops here, however.
I had hoped, what with the live album and the covers album back to back, that Amos was just unhappy with Atlantic Records, and once she fulfilled her contract and made the switch to Epic, she’d release the masterpiece she’d been secretly working on for three years. Alas, the just-released Scarlet’s Walk is terrible, easily the most boring and dead-sounding thing she’s ever signed her name to. (And I’m including Y Kant Tori Read, in case you were wondering.)
Amos’ first record for Epic is epic indeed: a so-called “sonic novel” that covers 18 tracks in 74 minutes. All of her albums are tied together conceptually, so it should be no surprise that Scarlet’s Walk is meant to tell a story – that of paper-thin Amos alter-ego Scarlet, and her walk across America. With this device, Amos hoped to put together a post-9/11 search for the heart of these United States, reflected in the wayward characters Scarlet meets. The limited edition packaging even comes with a map, some Polaroids and some stickers to mark your own journey, I guess.
Amos obviously put a lot of thought into the concept and the trappings, but it’s too bad she didn’t lavish some of that attention on the songs themselves. If, in fact, she rejected the Lilith Fair for offering little more than radio-ready fluff disguised as a battle cry, then it’s sadly ironic that “A Sorta Fairytale,” the lead single from Walk, sounds so much like third-rate Sarah McLachlan. It’s slick, simplistic and utterly boring. And it’s one of this album’s good songs.
Out of 18 songs, there are only three that I love, and a couple more that I like. Of those, none even comes close to “Silent All These Years,” for instance, or “Maryanne,” or even “Baker Baker.” Even her b-sides from that period (“Sugar,” “Flying Dutchman” and “Upside Down,” just to name three) wipe the floor with anything here. Imagine an entire album of “Past the Mission” arranged for elevators, and you have some idea of how snooze-worthy this thing is. It’s the first Tori album I nearly gave up on halfway through.
Trashing Tori makes me unbelievably depressed, so I’ll try to focus on the positive. “Carbon” is wonderful, a swirling vortex of notes and melody that slips into odd times at odd moments. The hook line (“Keep your eyes on her horizon”) is the best thing about all of Walk‘s 74 minutes. The seven-minute “I Can’t See New York” is heartbreaking, and dynamically arranged. The chorus parts find Amos desperately pleading over solo piano, a sound I’d almost forgotten could thrill me this much. And closer “Gold Dust” is lovely, a throwback to the “classic” Amos sound of piano, voice and strings.
In the second tier are “Fairytale,” which admittedly grows more pleasant with each listen; “Taxi Ride,” the likely next single; and “Sweet Sangria,” which starts out like most of the others with a limp bass-and-drums groove but launches into surprisingly melodic terrain. It shouldn’t be surprising, though – Amos is better than the other dozen songs here, most of which string the same chords together in the same ways. I barely stayed awake through “Don’t Make Me Come to Vegas,” and can’t quite distinguish it from “Strange,” “Crazy,” “Pancake,” or numerous others.
All the elements are there for a slam dunk, and that’s what makes Scarlet’s Walk so frustrating. Amos is back on piano for almost every track, which I’ve been clamoring for since choirgirl. She’s got a concept rich with possibilities, and complete creative freedom. And I hate that she’s used that freedom to sand all the rough edges off and turn in something barely competent, simple and slick. Sure, she’s playing piano again, but we never get to hear just how good she is. She seems to have forgotten how to write a song like “Yes, Anastasia,” with sections and changes and drama.
Her concept also lends itself to the multicolored emotions that used to be her trademark. America in the past year has been a harrowing experience, a healing process that deserves emotional exploration. Alas, since her first three albums, Amos has rejected the immediate, honest approach that made the listener feel like an integral part of her process. The seething pain of Little Earthquakes, the budding joy of Under the Pink, the unrestrained fury of Boys for Pele – absent any of these, Scarlet’s Walk is distant and disposable.
The saddest thing about Scarlet’s Walk is how forgettable it is. Like her character, she seems to meander about this album with no clear sense of direction, and no melodic or lyrical focus. Rather than searching aimlessly for the heart of America, Amos sounds like she needs to look inward for the heart of her own talent. She may be playing displaced characters here, but Amos herself sounds depressingly scattered and lost.
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I can’t let this column go by without mentioning Jam Master Jay.
The Run-DMC DJ was gunned down early Halloween morning, the latest victim of an increasingly violent rap culture. The ironies abound here – Run-DMC was instrumental in bringing hip-hop to the masses, allowing it to become the all-pervasive juggernaut it now is. The seminal trio believed in the joyous expression rap could be, the positive influence it could bring to young black people. In recent years, the members of Run-DMC expressed regret at the twisted and violent thing their child has become. In a sense, the murder of Jay feels like rap’s final, absolute rejection of its parents’ values, and that’s a sad thing.
Next week, any one of a number of intriguing possibilities.
See you in line Tuesday morning.