Tori Amos believes in the rhythm method. It’s easy to lump her with Sarah McLachlan and the Lilith crew: they share a gender, feminism, and a spiritual side so determinedly mythopoetic it makes many of us pavement pounders cringe–“I don’t go from boy to boy, I go from archetype to archetype,” Amos once said. And a chunk of the profits off Arista’s new Lilith compilation will benefit RAINN, the anti–sexual abuse organization that Amos founded. But on that album, almost all the artists are transmuted folkies, reliant on acoustic guitar, big singalong melodies over a straight 4/4. Lilith music converts the arena into a campfire. In contrast, Amos writhes around sweeping piano arpeggios, wringing brief melodic climaxes out of the thunder and crossbeats like moments of triumphant clarity in a life spent perched near delirium. She stops and starts on her own clock, creating a groove that’s as sinuous as grooves get, as idiosyncratic as her beliefs and more convincing. To quote her again: “You can tell a lot about somebody by where the rests are in a piece.” She never was a campfire girl, either.
If rock’s rebelliousness is fundamentally rooted in a rhythmic rebellion–a sped-up insistiveness, a radical foreshortening–then Amos is one of those women rockers who’ve found a voice rebelling against that rhythm. Not Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Joan Jett, Courtney Love, or Polly Harvey, the ones who rocked just as hard themselves, thank you. But Joni Mitchell, Laurie Anderson, Yoko Ono, the Raincoats, Kate Bush, Throwing Muses, Björk, Victoria Williams, perhaps Me’Shell Ndegeocello. (Ani DiFranco can’t quite decide, bless her.) Of all these talents, on either side of the divide, Amos is the most confident instrumentalist. Probably not a virtuoso, however that’s defined, but absolutely comfortable as a performer. And she applies the same unorthodox dexterity to her career, which since a disastrous spell fronting the L.A. metal group Y Kant Tori Read has flourished within carefully defined boundaries.
Her history is well known: a child prodigy on piano trained at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory from five to 11, she was kicked out for loving rock and her own technique too much, then spent her teens playing gay bars and politicians’ hangouts in D.C. After those L.A. lost years, she used 1991’s solo debut, Little Earthquakes, as an opportunity to return to live piano playing. She follows each album with some 150 to 200 dates; in 1996 she outtoured Garth Brooks and Kiss. Deprived of radio support by her refusal or inability to craft huge melodies, Amos built an audience on face-to-face contact, to where her albums go platinum or a little beyond. About half of those who buy the records see her live each time out, cultlike percentages for an artist that size. Put on Spin‘s cover, she produced issue sales beyond artists who chart higher. And her Web following is so huge it has generated media coverage of its own. “Have you been OK?” Amos asked the crowd at Irving Plaza last Thursday. It was perfectly safe to assume they’d all been together before.
Amos is scarcely comprehensible to anyone less attentive. She can be maddeningly elusive–“Surrender then start your engines/You’ll know quite soon what my mistake was/For those on horseback or dog sled,” the new tune “Liquid Diamonds” begins. But devotees learn she’s telling stories underneath: on 1996’s Boys for Pele, the subtext was a much-rumored affair with a goth rocker (broken up by Courtney Love, the subject of “Professional Widow” and maybe the new album’s “She’s Your Cocaine,” with its mention of the Kurt/Courtney treatment-center Exodus). Explaining From the Choirgirl Hotel, which comes out next Tuesday, Amos has offered details of a miscarriage she suffered and more reluctantly acknowledged her recent marriage to one of her longtime sound engineers, Mark Hawley.
The manipulativeness of all this wouldn’t be worth tolerating if the diva weren’t such a body puncher. She’s most frequently compared to Kate Bush, another beyond-pretentious pianist, but where Bush favored personal solitude, self-effacing orchestrations, and heady topics, Amos dominates the playing on her records, humps the piano live, and tackles subjects far less highfalutin than her diction: masturbating a floor above your god-fearing parents; getting even with a lover; hitting one’s thirties and freaking out in self-flagellation over an unborn child. (She’s unfailingly good for a soundbite, too–this time “virgins always get backstage.”) Her singing, which stretches from harpy shrieks to show-tune banter, centers on an unusual combination of full-bodied poise and rocker menace; she once chamber-crooned an EP of Nirvana, Stones, and Zep, just running a nail down their spines. And the music shifts at the drop of a dish, from languid and flowing to a band-augmented clamor that owes Nine Inch Nails. On Choirgirl Hotel, “She’s Your Cocaine” enjoys the savage bounce of great Roxy Music; “Northern Lad” reworks the wordless falsetto part of “Purple Rain” for maximum tingle; “Jackie’s Strength” has Joni’s strength.
Because Amos is so thoroughly rooted–sure about her playing and her audience, involved with the sound engineer and not the rocker–there’s always been a danger that she’d mellow into the adoration. I can’t root for more tragedies to befall her, but I’m glad she continues to structure in personal challenges. On Pele, the angriest songs were bashed out on an arcane-sounding harpsichord; this time, Amos recorded many basic tracks with drummer Matt Chamberlain and a sample programmer, so that the core rhythms aren’t exclusively hers. Neither musician is her equal (and texturally the samples are pretty mundane), but there’s an added tension to the total, as Amos pulses off other people. All her albums have thoroughly tuneless tunes–about half, unfortunately–the moments when it seems as if she’s playing a smoke machine instead of a Bosendorfer. Here, such tracks serve a higher purpose: they parade out and jam on the conceptual bluster.
Heard live, as Amos toured for the first time ever with a full band (Chamberlain on drums, guitarist Steve Caton, who’s recorded with her since the Y Kant Tori days, and bassist Jon Evans), less-than-stellar album cuts like “Iieee” and “Cruel” were thrashed up into show stealers, with Amos working herself into vocal frenzies over the multipart arrangements her piano had only hinted at. Older numbers like “God” and “The Waitress,” which she used to perform with a drum machine, got thorough revisions that made them considerably less cutesy. This was a minitour of clubs meant, I hope, to prepare Amos for a round of arena dates; with a band, she’s sonically ready to accept the challenge of playing such venues and I’m anxious to hear what she’ll make of it, because there are few others with the capacity to make bludgeoning atmospherics move. At 34, Tori Amos still thanks the faeries. But even a pavement pounder would have a hard time denying the depth of her frivolity.