The Rise and Fall of Tori Amos
A Piano Collects 15 Years in One Box

It’s a best-laid-plans kind of week.

I intended to write about two sweet pop records that are, as of now, only available in other countries – one from Canada and one from the U.K. However – and I really should have seen this coming – neither one made it to the United States in time for me to fully review them. As far as I know, both are still in transit, perhaps on an airplane somewhere, and perhaps that airplane is full of snakes, which would explain the delay. In any case, plans fell through, so I have to come up with something else.

Also, my computer has decided to die on me. The problem, apparently, is the graphics card – I spent hours on the phone with Dell tech support, in the mistaken belief that it was the graphics card driver. I’ve been through three support technicians now, because I can only work on this issue an hour at a time, due to my insane schedule.

So I’m writing this at work, and hoping nobody notices. But I’m glad that writing is my job, and not a suspect activity here in the office…

I do have something to review this week, but before we get to that, a quick note about something you can find in your record stores right now. I have previously gushed about Mute Math’s self-titled debut, which took its spot in the top two of my 2006 list pretty early on, and has yet to relinquish it. As I’ve mentioned, the band self-released Mute Math on their own Teleprompt label, selling it online and at shows, following a dust-up with Warner and Word.

Well, the bridges have been mended, the band is back on Warner, and Mute Math is finally on CD racks everywhere, as of this week. This would be unqualified good news, except for one thing – they messed with it, and the Mute Math you can find at your local Sam Goody is vastly inferior to the original version.

What’s different? Well, first, they took off one of the best songs, the amazing “Without It.” (They also omitted its drum-break coda, “Polite.”) Why, I don’t know. Then they added three songs from last year’s Reset EP – the three best, no doubt, but none of them are worth losing “Without It.” Finally, they shortened some of the longer songs, all but killing the atmosphere. The worst offense: the glorious “You Are Mine,” which spread its enveloping texture over 6:17 on the original release, is now a radio-ready 4:43. “Break The Same” also has had more than a minute trimmed from its whirlwind outro.

I know this seems picky, but with the three new songs and the edits, Mute Math is an entirely different record. It now has a weak song, “Plan B,” in place of a masterpiece, and the second half feels like a bunch of singles instead of a coherent whole. “Control,” the excellent opener from Reset, now sits between the truncated “You Are Mine” and the dazzling “Picture,” two songs which flowed perfectly on the original release.

The only longer song that remained untouched is “Stall Out,” the original closer, but the band have found a way to screw that up too, appending the instrumental “Reset” to the end of the disc. The album’s conclusion, once graceful, is now abrupt and uncomfortable. The sad part is, with this release, you can’t get the original Mute Math anymore – the band isn’t even selling it. The new bonus live EP, while nifty, does little to make that situation better.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy Mute Math, or that it’s not still an amazing album. It is. But in its original form, it was perfect, one of the finest debuts I’ve ever heard, and in this new incarnation, it’s just… not. It’s still fantastic, it’s just not perfect, and there’s no good reason why they messed with it. If you don’t have Mute Math, by all means, buy this version. But if you want the real deal, track down the original.

* * * * * *

Of course, I’m about to praise and recommend something that is basically a rearrangement and re-editing of, in some cases, perfect albums, so you might not want to listen to me. But then, most of my rules and pet peeves go out the window when I’m talking about Tori Amos.

Tori was quite possibly the first artist to completely rewrite my idea of music. At the time, I’d never heard anything quite like Little Earthquakes, her incredible first album. There were songs on it that resembled others I’d heard, but I’d never encountered pop songs delivered with such depth and emotion, such personal nakedness. And then there were others, ones that featured just Amos and her chilling, moving voice, and these were like nothing I’d ever imagined music could be.

My friend Chris was even more into Amos than I was – he scoured CD shops looking for every single he could find, tracking down all of her elusive b-sides. For good reason, too, because her non-album songs were often the equal of, and sometimes superior to, the ones that made the cut. And she released a lot of them – two or three brand-new tunes per single, as well as some breathtaking reinventions of songs like “Angie” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

But I had neither the money nor the resources to buy every Tori single, so I didn’t, and I watched as Chris’ collection grew. But ah, patience is rewarded, because out this week is A Piano, the five-disc box set that finally (finally!) collects almost all those b-sides and alternate tracks, as well as some new things and a liberal collection of Amos’ best tunes. And it comes in a box shaped like a piano, with real-looking white and black keys.

So I bought A Piano for the b-sides, but listening through it, I’m finding that I’m reliving the last 15 years in my mind. It’s astounding to me how much of my personal soundtrack can belong to just one artist. I’m remembering where I was when I first heard each of these songs, and how I felt listening to them for the first time. It’s been a heady experience.

A Piano also illustrates Amos’ bizarre and rapid decline in miniature – the first two discs are great, the third not as much, and the fourth is mostly bland, featuring songs from her three worst records (1998’s from the choirgirl hotel, 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk, and last year’s execrable The Beekeeper). It’s unspeakably sad to relive the artistic demise of one of my all-time favorite musicians, but after A Piano, there can really be no argument – she is not as good now as she was then.

So let’s start with then. The first disc here is called Little Earthquakes Extended, and is a thorough examination and restatement of her landmark 1992 debut. As Amos explains in the lavishly designed liner notes, Earthquakes went through several permutations, and was submitted to Atlantic Records three or four times. Hence, the b-sides from these sessions were really a-sides that were nixed by the label, which explains why songs like “Flying Dutchman” and “Upside Down” are just as beautiful and revelatory as anything on the record proper.

This new Earthquakes starts with “Leather” instead of “Crucify,” which means the first line on the album is now “Here I’m standing naked before you.” Somehow, this is more fitting, because this album is one of the most naked and deeply felt things I own, still. Here is “Silent All These Years,” the first Tori song I heard, its piano and strings and powerful lyrics standing out from all the soulless rubbish on MTV in ’92. Here is “Precious Things,” still one of the most searing and pure outbursts in my music collection. Here is “Winter,” which I played over and over again my freshman year of college, trying to find comfort.

And here is “Me and a Gun,” an a cappella confession that still makes time stop, and remains among the most intimate and brave things to come out of any artist I’m aware of.

I remember playing Earthquakes to death, wearing out my cassette copy – it still doesn’t quite play right, but that’s okay, because with my CD copy and A Piano I’ve effectively bought the album twice more since then. I also remember being unable to sleep on the eve of her 1994 follow-up, Under the Pink. I was a sophomore in college then, and I’d cultivated a small group of Tori fans who were equally (well, almost) excited to hear what she’d do next.

We weren’t disappointed. Pink, represented nearly in its entirety on this box set’s second disc, is a very different album from Earthquakes – more joyful, more sexual – but its equal in nearly every way. I devoured this album in ’94, and I found listening again that I know every detail of its contours. I am glad Amos included all nine minutes of “Yes, Anastasia,” still one of her most ambitious and successful pieces. I’m also glad that “Honey” is included here, instead of with the other b-sides – it belonged on Pink, as its author says in the liner notes.

I could not have predicted Boys for Pele, her 1996 excursion – it’s a difficult and painful listen, but ultimately a rewarding one. Here Amos tried new things – harpsichords, programmed beats, brass sections, more complex structures, and an unrestrained vocal timbre that grated on first listen. Pele was the first album I reviewed for Face Magazine, way back in the day, and I remember still struggling with it at the time.

And those feelings came rushing back as I dove through the back half of disc two here, and the first part of disc three. Here are nine of Pele’s 18 songs, many in intriguing alternate versions, but in any order, these recordings practically bristle with rage and pain. Pele is a daring, uneasy album, the kind that very few artists are courageous enough to make, even though in disconnected pieces, as it is here, the full effect doesn’t quite come through.

“Professional Widow,” perhaps the album’s most explosive song, is here twice, and neither one is the album version – here Amos is bellowing it live over just an organ, and watching herself get spindled and mutilated in Armand van Helden’s remix. Here as well is a Pele outtake, “Walk to Dublin,” and sadly, it was rightly cut from the album. But here are my favorites from the record, “Marianne” and “Doughnut Song” – oddly, the more traditional numbers. “Marianne” in particular is the only piano-and-strings song on Pele, the only real connecting thread with Earthquakes and Pink.

But after figuring Pele out, and learning to love it, I figured Amos would never stun me like that again. I was wrong – choirgirl hit in 1998, and it was easily the weakest and most banal thing she had done. Gone were the progressive structures, but also gone was any sense of deep feeling in the tracks. Amos has defended the album, which she recorded in the wake of her miscarriage, but the five songs on disc four here tell the story. They’re not bad, just not very good.

It was the start of a downslide from which she has still not recovered. Disc three contains seven songs from To Venus and Back, her half-studio, half-live endeavor from 1999, and they’re interesting, and certainly better than the stuff on choirgirl, but still not up to the bar she set early on. Both “Concertina” and “1000 Oceans” are winners, though. There’s nothing here from 2001’s covers record, Strange Little Girls, which is probably for the best.

Then came Scarlet’s Walk in ’02, and The Beekeeper in ’05, and the less said about either of them, the better. Sprawling records full of boring songs drained of all passion, these two misfires are represented on disc four with a mere six songs between them, as if Amos knows they are not up to par. Here as well are some newly uncovered songs from those sessions, including “Not David Bowie” and “Zero Point” and something called “Ode to My Clothes,” and none rise above the muck to make much of a mark.

But the fifth disc is the real prize – a 22-track journey through her b-sides and lost tracks. Here is “The Pool,” a haunting mélange of overdubbed vocals that works magic. Here is “Daisy Dead Petals,” and “Black Swan,” and “Bachelorette.” Here is “Sugar,” in its burbling and oddly moving synthesizer rendition. Here is “Cooling,” one of Amos’ best songs, which for some reason never found a proper home. And here is “Here In My Head,” a song for which I would probably have paid the full box set price.

Granted, here as well are her takes on “This Old Man” and “Home on the Range,” as well as trifles like “Toodles Mr. Jim,” but you take the good with the bad when the good is this extraordinary.

At this point, who can tell if Tori Amos will ever make another record as important, as devastating and as obviously personal as her first three. A Piano certainly makes the case that her talent has failed her – few artists have recovered from a decline like the one detailed on this box set. But if anyone could do it, Amos could. Listening to A Piano in order, I fell in love with Amos’ work all over again, as if I’d forgotten just how compelling and powerful her work once was. And of course, I will buy everything she does until one of us dies, in the hope that she can recapture what she’s lost.

For Tori virgins, A Piano might be all you need. It’s certainly all you need of her last few discs, although I would recommend getting the first three anyway – you must hear Little Earthquakes in its original order. But if you want to know what all the fuss is about, and at the same time hear all her important non-album tracks (and trust me, they are important), then you could do worse than dropping $75 on this thing. With a few exceptions (“Space Dog,” “Not the Red Baron,” “Black-Dove,” etc.), it’s every reason I love her, all in one box.

Next week, I swear, sweet pop from other countries. Really.

See you in line Tuesday morning.