Sharps & flats

A new record suggests that Tori Amos' power is inversely proportional to the number of instruments involved.

Topics: Music,

With everyone from Cher to Axl Rose dabbling in electronica, perhaps it was inevitable that Tori Amos would make a trip-hop record. It’s a shame she didn’t team up with someone like William Orbit, whose restrained digital effects beautifully complimented plaintive Beth Orton with the delicacy of tiptoeing footsteps in an old, creaky country house. The beats on Amos’ new songs, conversely, stomp over everything around them, often obscuring her greatest strengths, her words and her passionate piano.

Amos’ crack at electronica (her second after a couple of dance floor-inspired tracks on “From the Choirgirl Hotel”) makes up half of her new double CD, “To Venus and Back.” The other disc is a live album recorded on her 1998 tour, which includes songs from her first four records. You only have to listen to them together to see how ill-served Amos has been by trendy techno flourishes.

The live disc captures some of the wild, improvisational intensity of her shows, the madwoman scat that she bursts into in the middle of passionate passages and the energy she gets from her adoring fans. The words on the second “Venus” disc are crystalline, but new curls in Amos’ phrasing provide fresh chills, especially on early tracks like “Girl” from “Little Earthquakes” (1991), where her voice works up into a tense growl before breaking into a rich, enveloping, compassionate croon. The disc also has one new song, a forlorn ballad called “Cooling” that ranks among her best work.

Even on the live disc, though, the accompanying musicians tend to distract, especially the ugly whine of electric guitar on “Precious Things” and “Cornflake Girl.” After all, the force of Amos’ work has often been inversely proportional to the number of instruments involved. Her best song might be the stark, a cappella “Me and a Gun,” a shattering tale of rape that it’s almost impossible to listen to without shivers. That song debuted on “Little Earthquakes,” Amos’ best album. The acute, almost excruciating pathos of the album dissipated on later releases under increasingly busy arrangements, but she could still rip a listener’s heart out.

Amos’ emotion has never been more vague than it is on the first disc of “To Venus and Back,” largely because her uniqueness is buried under generic down-tempo beats. On “Juarez,” a dreary, predictable hip-hop bass drowns out Amos’ words, while the muddy mix on “Riot Proof” reduces her clarion voice to a mere sound effect. The immensely melodic “Concertina,” stands out at first, but even it succumbs to a lame techno breakdown. Sadly, the one song on which Amos’ words are clear features the lame lite FM line, “These tears I’ve cried/I’ve cried 1,000 oceans.”

Except for “Josephine” and “Lust,” on which the beats are minimal and Amos’ piano is in the foreground, the first disc lacks the spine-tingling power of the older songs on the second. For washed-up artists like Cher, club effects can create tracks that almost sound fresh. But with Amos, anything besides her piano and her honeyed, rough-edged voice has always been too much.

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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