Filed under: book, review | Tags: 2008, charlotte richardson andrews, dockers mc, laura dockrill, music
Mistakes In The Background ••••
With its neon pink cover, complete with hand-drawn art, Laura Dockrill’s new book ‘Mistakes In The Background’ is a lunchbox feast of a read, bursting with poetry, stories, illustrations and scribbles, and even a wrapping paper and sticker set.
Filed under: album, back issues, book, film & dvd, live, review | Tags: alan pedder, alex ramon, ann powers, matthew hall, tori amos, vitamin string quartet
Tori Amos & Ann Powers
Tori Amos: Piece By Piece •••••
Released in the US just prior to her eighth studio album, The Beekeeper, this fascinatingly unconventional semi-autobiography did what few Tori Amos releases since Under The Pink have been able – it failed to split the critics. It even made the New York Times Bestseller List. Having finally found a publisher in the UK, where her fanbase is slenderer yet unremittingly fervent, ‘Piece By Piece’ at last hits the bookshelves in June in support of the European leg of her Original Sinsuality Tour. Regardless of whether you have an appreciation for Tori Amos the performer, Tori Amos as author brings to the fore her enviable intelligence, quick wit and literate, piercing insight and as such commands respect even from those who would give it begrudgingly. Co-written with renowned New York music journalist Ann Powers this is no mere memoir, for Amos has always had a keen eye for a concept – her last few albums have come with buckets of convolutions. With a nonlinear narrative to match the most ambitious writers of fiction, Amos and Powers construct a verbal collage of various conversations (including contributions from Amos’s husband, friends, touring bandmates, chef and security guard among others) that are woven through eight hefty chapters.
Each chapter is overseen by an archetype of mythological or religious legend, including Amos’s constant inspiration and “erotic muse”, Mary Magdelene. Amos has been trying to reunite the spiritual and the sexual aspects of womanhood since her debut album Little Earthquakes tore down gender barriers and kicked open the floodgates for similarly confessional songwriting. Years before ‘The Da Vinci Code’ popularised the gnostic gospel of Mary Magdelene, Amos has given voice to the much maligned biblical figure, but never more so than in ‘Marys Of The Sea’, one of the standout songs from The Beekeeper. This song and many others are discussed and abstracted upon in ‘song canvasses’ scattered throughout the book.
The motherhood chapter (overseen by Demeter, the Greek goddess of harvest and fertility), which tells of Amos’s long battle to successfully carry a child that finally ended in 2000 with the birth of her daughter Natashya Lorién, is guaranteed to hit a nerve. Her disarmingly frank account of each of her three miscarriages is both harrowing and brave. Equally engaging is her tale of how these health problems contributed to the souring of her relationship with Atlantic Records. That, and a brazen publicity scam on their part, were the final straw for Amos who told them where to stick it. Unfortunately, she still had three albums to turn in to fulfil the terms of her contract, albums which Atlantic were determined not to promote in order to effectively ruin her career, an effort in which they clearly failed.
The interplay between Amos and Powers helps to keep the notoriously wordy songwriter on track, although some passages are a little hard going. If you can forgive Amos her small indulgences, there is much to be enjoyed here, even for those with just a passing interest. It is an utterly unprecendented opportunity to look so far into the mind of one of the most enigmatic artists of our time.
originally published May 22nd, 2005
Live at the Apollo, Hammersmith ••••
June 4th, 2005
Though each of her last few albums have come swaddled in conceptual complexities that would make Nietzsche think twice about indulging, tonight’s stop on Tori Amos’s Original Sinsuality Tour mostly dispenses with the cerebellar workout, leaving room for the levity of her music to truly impress. The sixth-form poetry clunkiness of the moniker aside, this latest tour has been one of the more memorable in recent years and given her the chance to showcase those famous interpretive skills first evidenced by her version of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.
For each night of the tour, fans have been able to request covers via Amos’ official website, resulting in performances ranging from the obvious to the outrageous. Tonight was the turn of George Michael’s ‘Father Figure and Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’, both of which have been played before but sounded all the more polished for it. The former especially hit all the buttons that Michael could only strive for. In a setlist drawing heavily from her first three records and this year’s The Beekeeper, several of her albums, including the sublime Scarlet’s Walk, were sadly neglected. However, a surprise rendition of Lloyd Cole & The Commotions’ ‘Rattlesnakes’ from her contract-fulfilling covers album Strange Little Girls, seemed unusually at home in the two-hour set.
To attend a Tori Amos gig is to be guaranteed a display of reverence from her notoriously enthusiastic fans and tonight was no different. Some even wept during more tender moments such as the captivating ‘Winter’, live favourite ‘Cooling’ and the hymnal theatrics of ‘The Beekeeper’, a song written last year after Amos’s mother fell ill with a life-threatening heart problem from which she thankfully recovered, and later embellished following the death of her brother Michael in a road accident last November.
In complete contrast, Amos invited onto the stage a choir of six gospel singers to add a welcome sense of fun to the proceedings, unique to this performance. The live debut of the six-minute soulful epic ‘Witness’ was the highlight of the night, though the bizarrely fluid boogie-woogie of empowerment anthem ‘Hoochie Woman’ was another real treat. Only ‘Jamaica Inn’ floundered as Amos switched between her beloved Bösendorfer and Hammond organ a few too many times, slowing the song considerably. Still, Amos’s prodigious talent and mastery of her instrument never fails to amaze and confirms her singular status.
The only true gripe was that, while Amos is undoubtedly a musical auteur, she fared less well visually with some of the worst lighting projections in memory. Certainly she’s no Björk in that department and they added little to the experience. But with a performer so compelling and music this affecting, who really needs such trifling distractions?
originally published June 16th, 2005
Fade To Red: The Videos ••••½
My first encounter with Tori Amos on video was a shot of her hurtling towards a giant spider’s web in the abstract European promo for ‘Cornflake Girl’ (featured here as a bonus extra). Ironically, the striking red hair that hallmarks almost all of her other videos and inspires the name of this collection was indistinguishable to me as I marvelled at this monochrome masterpiece. Okay, well, in hindsight maybe it isn’t really a masterpiece, but then how many music videos are? It’s an inherently silly medium. Which is why it’s so refreshing to come across an artist willing to take a few risks and sometimes even embrace the silliness of it. In fact, most of the videos included here are, in their varying ways, even more remarkable than the cut I first fell in love with, but the point is the same: whichever avenue you take into the wonderful world of Amos’s visual output, it is likely to be a memorable one.
Her first video, ‘Silent All These Years’, is another bold affair and one that has provided most people with their first and most lasting impression of Amos – also becoming the source of the cover shot for her debut album. It comprises mostly of Tori, a white background, a wooden box, some bright red lipstick and those famous red tresses. Simple yet compelling, it works because it allows Amos to breathe. An artist with lesser presence wouldn’t be comfortable laying themselves open to such close scrutiny, yet Amos does it consistently. No matter what guise she takes, Amos never seems overwhelmed. You find yourself believing in her, whether trapped on display in a gallery window, being dragged from a burning building or bound and running away from an unidentified captor as we see in ‘Spark’, possibly the most gripping video I’ve ever laid eyes on. The results are exhilarating.
What hits you is the sheer variety of ideas that Amos and her collaborators seem to have. The sequencing of the videos contributes to this diversity, juxtaposing selections from different points in her fifteen-year career. It would have been silly to lump together the low-budget Little Earthquakes videos at the start of the collection. Whilst each video is its own entity and should be considered as such, the early videos are essentially different sides to the same box that Amos first rolled onto our screens in, none of them quite building on the stark imagery of her first promo. Instead they are much more entertaining and unique when dotted around the collection, reminding us that her vision has been uncompromising from the start. ‘Winter’ even benefits from being sandwiched between the more subversive and stylised ‘A Sorta Fairytale’ (featuring Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody in perhaps the weirdest allegorical love story ever) and ‘Spark’. Elsewhere, the student-like experimentation of ‘China’ segues perfectly into the more adventurous ‘Raspberry Swirl’ and ‘Talula’ promos. In fact, the early videos are some of the most enjoyable to watch as Amos and director Cindy Palmano play around with the constrictions of the medium.
The music, as always, is simply outstanding. In fact, had 2003’s ‘reconditioned’ retrospective ‘Tales Of A Librarian’ been conceived and presented similarly to this it may have proved a greater testament to her talents. This has obviously been a labour of love for Amos and, overall, it’s a very well packaged and comprehensive collection. A couple of videos are conspicuous by their absence, however. One can only presume that contractual issues prevented the inclusion of the promo for her Stranglers cover, ‘Strange Little Girl’, as it is one of her best. The missing ‘Glory Of The 80s’ video is more of a mystery, although the likely reason for its omission is that it just didn’t make the grade – it’s a video with a nice idea that wasn’t quite realised. Still, do a Google search for either of these and you’ll find them in seconds. As for extras, the personal commentary on each video is a very nice and often hilarious touch, allowing us an insight into the making of and ideas behind the clips.
originally published April 10th, 2006
The Original Bootlegs ••••½
Should anyone have any doubts about what a commanding and provocative artist Tori Amos remains, they will surely be put to rest by these officially sanctioned ‘bootlegs’. Recorded during this year’s solo Original Sinsuality and Summer Of Sin tours, five of these double CDs were initially released exclusively online, and have now been packaged together as a comprehensive boxset (along with an extra bonus 2CD recording), offering yet another fix for Amos’s followers. Indeed, 2005 has been an amazingly fertile year for Amos artistically. With another brilliant studio album in The Beekeeper, an absorbing and stylistically innovative memoir in ‘Piece By Piece’, and now these releases, she’s in danger of spoiling us rotten. On these discs, culled from dates in LA, Chicago, Denver, Manchester, London and Boston, we find her singing (better than ever) songs both old and new, rarities and a series of creative covers – sufficient material to keep both diehard enthusiasts and recent converts occupied for months. If you were at these shows (and surely not even Amos’s most devoted fans could have attended all of them) then these CDs offer a wonderful memento of some amazing musical moments. If you weren’t, it’s a chance to catch up on some of what you missed and to savour the enthralling experience that is Amos’s live show.
As skilful as she has been at integrating other instruments into her music over the years, there remains something ineffably magical about Amos performing solo; the only time she shares the spotlight here is when she’s joined in quite spectacular fashion by the a six-piece gospel choir in London. With just piano, Rhodes and Hammond B3 organ to accompany her sinuous vocals, she’s at her most riveting, her ability to command an audience second to none. But is it any wonder that she’s so accomplished? Lest we forget, this self-confessed “road dog” has been performing for audiences since she was a teenager, and there’s a nice nod to those apprentice years in the ‘Piano Bar’ segments featured here, in which she performs her pick of the songs requested by fans via her website.
Among those receiving the Amos treatment are tracks by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Madonna, Oasis, Bonnie Tyler, George Michael, Bon Jovi and Aerosmith (yes, really!), so it’s just as well that she has such a strong personality as a performer, and such finely-honed interpretive skills, that she stamps her distinctive mark on every one. “This could really be crap,” she warns before delivering a decidedly non-crap version of A Flock Of Seagulls’ ‘I Ran’. Particularly gorgeous are her takes on Jim Croce’s ‘Operator’, where she captures beautifully the combined bravado and vulnerability of the narrator, and ‘Like A Prayer’, which she invests with more genuine sexual and spiritual fervour than Madonna could ever hope to muster. There’s also some typically cherishable between-song banter in these Piano Bar interludes, including one already notorious diatribe. Who but Amos would have the chutzpah to lob some very descriptive insults at Morrissey in front of an audience of Mancunians? It’s one of many reasons to love her.
Another reason is that she’s amassed a back catalogue that ranks among the greatest in contemporary music, and which provides a very rich resource for her to mine in live performances. Aside from her undebatable instrumental prowess, Amos has always been a terrific writer of songs that can be equal parts tender and savage, raw and healing, sad and sensual, and both her oldest and newest material gets a workout here. Highlights from her own repertoire include ‘Little Amsterdam’, sounding spookier than ever with its organ accompaniment; the baroquely beautiful ‘Yes, Anastasia’; the startling ‘Father Lucifer’; the buoyant ‘Take To The Sky’; the ever-green ‘Winter’, ‘Silent All These Years’ and ‘Tear In Your Hand’; and the majestic ‘Cool On Your Island’. It’s fascinating, too, to hear new songs such as ‘Sweet The Sting’ and ‘The Power Of Orange Knickers’ stripped down to just keyboard and voice, and in the process sounding more themselves than ever.
It should be noted that there is, inevitably, quite a bit of repetition of material over the discs. ‘Original Sinsuality’ kicks off every show, and we get several ‘Jamaica Inn’s, ‘Space Dog’s and ‘Parasol’s when we might wish for a ‘Pretty Good Year’ or a ‘Northern Lad’. But, as Amos would no doubt argue, ‘Parasol’ in Chicago on April 15th is not ‘Parasol’ in Denver on April 19th, and the duplication of material does offer a valuable opportunity to compare different versions. Amos is such a spontaneous, in-the-moment performer that she never delivers identikit readings of her songs anyway, and the chance for listeners to play “compare and contrast” is one of the many pleasures offered here. Collectively then, these discs further demonstrate Amos’s sheer mastery of her art. From first note to last, you’re confronted with the slightly overwhelming sensation of hearing a performer at the very peak of her powers. While some critics continue to recycle tired complaints about ‘abstruse lyrics’ and ‘excessive ambition’, Amos just gets on with making some of the most adventurous, intelligent and extraordinary music out there. Long may she continue.
originally published December 19th, 2005
A Piano: The Collection •••••
The release of this monumental compilation just three years after Tales Of A Librarian suggests that the latter ‘best of’ did not entirely satisfy Amos’s desire for a comprehensive retrospective of her career. It’s hardly surprising; having produced a series of stunning, epic records which have each rehabilitated and transformed the notion of the concept album, Amos must surely feel a certain amount of frustration that her extraordinary music is still frequently dismissed by much of the mainstream British music press as the work of a Kate Bush clone. By now, of course, such accusations just sound plain silly: could an artist really sustain nine albums and a succession of Odysseyan tours (not to mention survive a major record company scrap) by simply ‘copying’ another one? Hardly.
Nonetheless, the persistence of these kinds of comments points to a worrying critical tendency to dismiss certain female artists on entirely superficial grounds of similarity. While identikit male guitar bands and warbling R&B wannabes merrily rip each other off without comment or censure, some critics’ indignant response to Amos’s work – “We’ve already got one like that!” – sadly reflects a refusal to engage with another complex, uncompromising (and resolutely female) artistic vision. Such a reaction seems both glaringly unfair as well as inaccurate. After all, surface similarities notwithstanding, Bush and Amos have never been all that alike in performance style, lyrical content or career philosophy; it’s about as easy to envisage Bush embarking on a 200-date tour as it is to imagine Amos writing a rhapsodic ode to light and birdsong and getting Rolf Harris to sing on it. Fortunately, Amos’s heartening response to such blinkered critical diminishment has been to keep her focus firmly placed upon her music, as vividly demonstrated by A Piano, a beautifully packaged collection that fully confirms her singular status. This boxset – which, in a stroke of design genius, is shaped to resemble the keyboard of one of Amos’s treasured Bösendorfers – contains five discs and 86 tracks but still only manages to scratch the surface of her brilliant career.
That said, even the most ardent of Toriphiles may approach this release with a mixture of delight and trepidation. Since Amos’s records are so intricately worked out, so thematically cohesive, do we really want another collection that inevitably distorts their immaculate sequencing and, by so doing, risks muddying our memories of the original albums? The fact is that a collection such as this one can never hope to please all of the people all of the time, and once you’ve recovered from the shock of some truly questionable omissions (no ‘Northern Lad’! no ‘Talula’! no ‘Scarlet’s Walk’, fer chrissake!) and the not overly generous supply of new and rare material (just seven previously unreleased tracks in all, along with some alternate mixes, demos and a healthy assortment of B-sides), it’s time to relax and savour what is here, as well as the fact that Amos has been able to produce the collection and oversee the selection process herself. In her own words: “A lot of times you’re a grand- mother when you get that opportunity to do the boxset – or you’re dead. To be current and creating, alongside putting a retrospective together, is an opportunity that you don’t always have in life.” For Amos, this collection marks “the end of an era” and it testifies to both the stylistic diversity of her output and the consistency of its quality. If her music is intricately bound up in your existence and identity then the experience of listening to A Piano is rather like flicking through a book of your own life, and discovering that, while a few crucial chapters have gone missing, they’ve been replaced by others that you’d forgotten about and a few that you didn’t know were there.
It will come as no surprise that no inclusions from Amos’s ill-starred Y Kant Tori Read days are made; instead, the first four discs trace a broadly chronological path through her post-1990 career, taking in everything from the bare-bones intimacy of Little Earthquakes, the dynamic rock of From The Choirgirl Hotel, the swirling electronica of To Venus & Back and the widescreen panoramas of the mighty Scarlet’s Walk. Disc A is something of a settling of scores, presenting an extended and rearranged version of Little Earthquakes that more accurately reflects Amos’s original vision of the album. It’s a bold (and possibly foolhardy) move to re-order a record that, for most of us, was perfect in its original incarnation, and no doubt many admirers of the album will feel a certain amount of ambivalence about Amos’s decision to do this. Happily, the re-sequencing does not interfere with the impact of the album, which still sounds incredibly powerful, retaining its ability to chill, inspire, shock and console in equal measure. And it’s unquestionably a bonus to have B-sides the likes of ‘Upside Down’, ‘Flying Dutchman’, ‘Take To The Sky’ and ‘Sweet Dreams’ collected together in one place on this disc.
Discs B-D mix tracks from Under The Pink, Boys For Pele, Choirgirl, Venus, Scarlet’s Walk and The Beekeeper with pit stops for the rare and unreleased material, while Disc E collates a selection of her B-sides and demos. (A typically well-produced booklet offers photos, background detail and commentaries on many of the inclusions.) As on Tales Of A Librarian, some of the album tracks have been subtly (and in some cases, very subtly) remixed from the original versions; in Amos’s terms, these are acts of “refurbishment” designed to prevent her earlier work from sounding dated. The most noticeable tweaking occurs on the dense choirgirl tracks: violent guitar stabs and all manner of unidentifiable sinister noises add new layers of atmosphere to ‘Cruel’ and ‘iieee’, while the Kurzweil and sighing pedal steel on ‘Playboy Mommy’ are given extra space. All the remixes are effective, however, contributing a crisper and cleaner sound to the songs.
If last year’s Official Bootleg series demonstrated Amos’s ability to command an audience with ‘just’ her voice and exquisite keyboard skills, these discs remind of her equally dextrous control of studio toys and band dynamics, not to mention the evolution of her singing and the complex beauty of her songwriting. As her frames of reference have broadened, taking her music ever deeper into history (or herstory), politics, myth and legend, Amos has learned how to utilise a select group of musicians – principally, drummer Matt Chamberlain and bassist Jon Evans – who share her sense of studio meticulousness. The opportunity that this boxset offers to trace her creative arc is genuinely thrilling, and it may surprise some listeners that the noisiest, rockiest songs here are among the most piercingly effective. But the constant component of her work is, of course, the piano, and these discs attest to her consistent and creative reinvention of that instrument as a vital and versatile part of the pop-rock idiom.
There’s always something new to uncover in Amos’s songs and each listener will of course have their own favourite (re-)discoveries as they dive into this collection. But it’s the new material that most fans will make a beeline for first, and the previously unreleased tracks are as brilliant as anything she’s ever done. The tense ‘Take Me With You’ (which Amos began in 1990 and finally completed this year) is an immediate highlight, a seamless merging of her earliest and most recent sensibilities. ‘Walk To Dublin (Sucker Reprise)’ is a captivating slice of harpsichord-driven Pele-era madness, while the Beekeeper reject ‘Not David Bowie’ rocks and rumbles with a blistering mix of Hammond organ and clavinet that has to be heard to be believed. Meanwhile, ‘Marys Of The Sea’ gets supplemented by a cheeky ‘intro jam’ which finds Amos scatting and improvising over funky piano, bass and drums. “I’ve got to face some kind of evil tomorrow,” she sings, rather cheerfully. Elsewhere, ‘Ode To My Clothes’ manages to be both playful and desolate and ‘Dolphin Song’ is simply mesmerising.
Each of these tracks demonstrates her amazing ability to take a song through diverse emotions, metres and moods. With her richly expressive vocals, Amos can turn a tender ballad of love betrayed savage with a simple shift in intonation or a casually dropped profanity – listen to the eruption of anger that spills into the bridge of ‘Take Me With You’ or the sudden Southern twist she puts on the “daughter of a preacher man” lyric in ‘Dolphin Song’. Her vocalisations are peerless in their expressiveness and unpredictability. Meanwhile, intricate temporal shifts in the music are matched and enhanced by startling lyrical juxtapositions: ‘Sister Janet’ finds her “slipping the blade in the marmalade”; ‘Beulah Land’ has her requesting “religion, and a lobotomy”; on ‘Honey’ she’s trying to “bribe the undertaker” and confronting a man who only “liked [his] babies tight.” (Listening to these lyrics you may find yourself wondering whether it can be a mere coincidence that Amos was born in the year Sylvia Plath died.)
From moment to moment, you never know in what direction her songs are going to take you: the nine-minute ‘Zero Point’ spends a few seconds masquerading as a delicate piano ballad before mutating into an epic of programmed beats and distorted guitar. Elsewhere, vaudeville touches merge with classical flourishes, furious harpsichord joins with church bells. As she put it so memorably in her semi-autobiography ‘Piece By Piece’: “Some days life can feel pretty normal…then there are other days that make you think you’ve walked into something sinister, like a Hermann Hesse novel.” Her songs contain and convey that breadth of feeling and experience, allowing the sacred and profane, the oblique and the brutally direct, the mythic and the colloquial, to occupy the same breathing space. Few musicians have the capacity to channel such calm and frenzy, either live or on record. And even fewer can match her ability to combine intellectual rigorousness with visceral emotion. But, for all her intensity, A Piano exposes an incredible amount of humour in her work, black and otherwise.
Still, it’s a genuine shame that none of her brilliant covers are featured, no ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ or ‘Angie’, and nothing from her bracingly subversive (and criminally underrated) Strange Little Girls album – who wouldn’t kill to hear her rendition of Public Enemy’s ‘Fear Of A Black Planet’? Anything, in fact, would be preferable to the Armand van Helden dance remix of ‘Professional Widow’, which, as on Tales…, sounds like a garish intrusion here. However, its appearance is compensated for by the inclusion of a blood-curdlingly intense live version of the song elsewhere. Moreover, the B-side disc yields a spectacular sequence of songs, including an inspired deconstruction of ‘Home On The Range’ (which clearly anticipates Scarlet’s Walk‘s investigation of Native American history), the most poignant version of ‘This Old Man’ you’re ever likely to hear and the rare ‘Merman’, one of her most haunting compositions. The demo medley is also a wonderful addition that bravely showcases works in progress; it’s fascinating to hear the complex narrative of ‘A Sorta Fairytale’ being developed, while on ‘Playboy Mommy’ she truly sounds as if she’s in the process of channelling the song from another dimension.
As with all of Amos’s work, thought, care and an almost visionary quality of attention to detail have gone into the compilation of A Piano. This remarkable collection confirms her genius, contextualising an extensive body of work that, spiritually speaking, owes as much to The Beatles, Led Zeppelin or Nirvana as Kate Bush and yet retains its utter uniqueness. Along with last year’s Official Bootleg series, the autobiography and this year’s ‘Fade To Red’ video collection, A Piano offers another opportunity to explore the depths in Amos’s music as we await the next step on her journey (a new studio album is due next spring). It’s a pricey purchase, to be sure, but think of it as a spiritual investment…you’ll be listening to these songs forever.
originally published October 27th, 2006
American Doll Posse ••••½
Notwithstanding a certain newspaper’s recent assertion that she’s “as fashionable as carbohydrates” these days – the kind of glib pronouncement that only an esteemed Brit broadsheet can make – the release of a new Tori Amos album remains an event for many of us. Despite the underestimation of her 21st century output by the mainstream music press, Amos, to her credit, has not wavered in her commitment to producing bold, thematically ambitious records in the face of patronisation and dismissal. From the covers-album-as-conceptual-extravaganza Strange Little Girls through the state-of-the-nation travelogue masterpiece Scarlet’s Walk to the lush “sonic gardens” of The Beekeeper, her recent work cries out for reappraisal. While none of these releases may have satisfied anyone still hoping for Little Earthquakes II, each testified to her willingness to experiment and bend the album form in all manner of strange and original directions.
Last year’s colossal A Piano boxset was similarly underrated (not to mention under-reviewed): the collection functioned as a timely reminder of the singularity of Amos’s vision, but was sadly overlooked by all but the die-hards. Alas, it seems that her new album, American Doll Posse, has failed to fully revive her commercial fortunes either, at least on this side of the Atlantic, debuting at a lowly number 50 on the UK album chart in the week that saw new albums by Ne-Yo and Natasha Bedingfield go Top 10. It’s probably best not to linger over the cultural implications of this though, as it has subsequently emerged that the low chart placing was due to a particularly bizarre bit of regulation which barred sales of the album’s special edition from inclusion in the count. (Beck’s The Information suffered the same fate last year.)
But if mainstream success seems likely to continue to elude her now, Amos can rest assured that she has created another work of breathtaking stylistic reach, uninhibited passion and fierce intellect. A something-for-everyone record in the mould of avowed inspirations such as The White Album and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, American Doll Posse unabashedly returns post-millennial pop to the 1970s era of grand art-rock gestures, mixing it up with a healthy dose of brazen gynocentricism, and fuelled by Amos’s wholesale assimilation (Bach to the Beatles and Bowie by way of Bartók) of the history of music.
Perhaps in witty response to those who complained that The Beekeeper was far too long, Amos here produces an album that is shorter than its predecessor – by less than a minute. Boasting a mammoth 23 tracks, American Doll Posse tops both Scarlet’s Walk and The Beekeeper for sheer unadulterated epic-ness, while maintaining a rougher, brasher (some might say less subtle) tone. As all interested parties are aware by now, the album’s concept sees Amos continuing her investigation of the possibilities of role-play and character in order to conjure five distinct female personas inspired by the Greek pantheon: Isabel (Artemis), Clyde (Persephone), Santa (Aphrodite), Pip (Athena), and – in a pleasing po-mo touch – Tori (Demeter and Dionysus, no less). These characters are our narrators and guides through the Posse maze – liner notes helpfully identify who’s singing what – sometimes duetting or providing background vocals for each other, and offering their diverse takes on contemporary experience, from the overtly political to the deeply personal.
With dedicated internet blogs, their own wardrobes, and a heap of characteristically high-flown rhetoric about challenging the supremacy of the American Christer-Republican matrix through the unification of the compartmentalised feminine (phew), it’s pretty clear (if it wasn’t already) that Amos holds no fear of the accusations of posturing and pretension that she must be aware will inevitably follow. However, anyone who’s read Amos’s autobiography ‘Piece By Piece’ will know just how central the study of myth and archetype has become to her creative process and, in this sense, American Doll Posse feels like the natural outcome of her recent influences and concerns. There’s a practical side to the concept too: the problem with something-for-everyone albums – especially ones that last 79 minutes – is that they can lack cohesion. Amos’s recourse to personas allows her to sidestep this pitfall, and provides her with a fresh way to effectively channel and utilise all of the multifarious elements that make up her musical personality.
But leaving aside conceptual befuddlements for the moment (we’ll return to them later, sorry), how does American Doll Posse actually sound? Very good indeed. Fortunately, Amos’s socio-political agenda has not led her to produce the sonic equivalent of a Hélène Cixous essay. Rather, with typical unpredictability, she’s given us a record that is, for the most part, thoroughly accessible: sexy, decadent, slightly disreputable fun. For all the pomposity of her rhetoric, Amos seems fully aware that there’s a great deal of frivolous, high-camp potential to the concept she’s devised, and she appears to be having a very good time exploring it.
Moreover, even with Amos plainly leading the charge as she operates her inimitable keyboard arsenal (Rhodes, Wurlitzer, electric piano, clavichord and mellotron accompany the Bösendorfer this time), Posse is also very much a collaborative work. Across the album Matt Chamberlain’s protean drumming and Jon Evans’s lithe bass join with her to achieve the kind of sustained symbiosis which is only possible after many months of shared live performance. A couple of tracks boast a string quartet arranged with typically exquisite precision by long-time collaborator John Philip Shenale, but the album’s real surprise lies in the contributions of the enigmatic ‘Mac Aladdin’ (recently revealed to be Mark Hawley, aka Mr. Amos), who emerges from the shadows to contribute incendiary electric guitar work throughout. The result is an album that rocks hard; Amos hasn’t got this consistently noisy on record since 1999’s To Venus & Back. That she manages to do so while continuing to engage in an intelligent and literate manner with thorny questions of gender, identity, power and politics suggests something of her achievement here.
But if Posse quickly gets raucous it actually starts out quiet, with trademark portentous piano chords ushering in Isabel’s brief opening Bush-salute, ‘Yo George’, a hushed piano-voice duet that serves as a chilling and inviting induction into the record. This is not the first time that Amos has set the leader of the free world in her sights (cf. ‘Sweet Dreams’, ‘Indian Summer’ and her blistering deconstruction of ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ which sampled the voices of Bush Jr and Snr), and here she proves conclusively that political statement doesn’t have to be loud to be effective, a sublimely appropriate reference to a certain Alan Bennett play redeeming the piece from obviousness. Throughout, the album’s major tracks are interspersed with such short (but stylistically varied) songs, Boys For Pele-esque interludes that arrive like brief bulletins from the underworld. Listeners will decide for themselves whether these constitute a valuable addition to the album or a waste of space, but the grungy ‘Fat Slut’ (a reference to Catherine Breillat’s notorious 2001 film ‘Fat Girl’?), the implicatory ‘Devils & Gods’, the deliciously disturbing Weimar cabaret ‘Velvet Revolution’, and Santa’s sly ode to adaptability, ‘Programmable Soda’, offer so many lyrical and melodic gems that it’s very hard to begrudge their appearance. And given the album’s surfeit of material maybe it’s not a bad thing to be left wanting more of something.
Such is Amos’s healthy relationship to her Muse(s) that, barring the occasional strained moment, there’s amazingly little filler on Posse. As far as the major tracks go, things begin to get really interesting as soon as ‘Big Wheel’, an unexpected piece of swaggering honky-tonk that nicely establishes the album’s gender agenda, its brilliant bridge turning on the already-infamous appropriation of an impolite appreciatory acronym. It’s followed by the thumping drums and galloping pianos of Clyde’s delectable ‘Bouncing Off Clouds’, a song that continues the sharp-eyed investigation into “the way we communicate”, which has always been a central theme of Amos’s writing. “Failure to respond worked / I talked, but did you listen?” she enquires, the challenges of human interaction – whether between lovers, enemies or the individual and a perceived Authority – remaining a primary concern throughout the album.
With screaming electric guitar and a vocal that roves from Peckham High Street to the San Fernando Valley in the space of a syllable, Pip takes over on the magnificently truculent ‘Teenage Hustling’, a song which uncovers a link between soliciting and salvation that few would dare to make. ‘Digital Ghost’ is a superb piano-ballad-goes-glam hybrid that uses technology obsession as a metaphor for emotional unavailability. Lurching into an unanticipated 1960s girl-group chorus, ‘Mr. Bad Man’ is a surprisingly playful take on those archetypal oppressive patriarchs, while ‘You Can Bring Your Dog’ struts like a gender-inverted Led Zeppelin classic, with Amos (via Santa) unleashing her best Robert-Plant-in-heat as she proclaims “I’m not living to be the Mrs.,” an assertion that could be the album’s mission statement.
There’s a similarly retro feel to much of the material, and Amos intelligently mines and melds her diverse influences without ever resorting to larceny. Gently revising one of her favourite songs, ‘Eleanor Rigby’, the deeply affecting ‘Girl Disappearing’ questions the inevitability of a woman’s apparent annihilation, while the Fleetwood Mac-meets-REM ‘Secret Spell’ is one of those exhilarating anthems of self-reliance that have always been her speciality. As she bites down hard on the “sold a dream at 23” lyric we realise that the song is documenting a series of turning points in a young girl’s life (almost certainly her own; her miserably received first band Y Kant Tori Read was signed to a six-album deal with Atlantic Records when she was 23) and the resolve she’s going to require just to survive them intact.
Arriving at the crucial mid-album mark, ‘Body & Soul’ – all clumping percussion, staccato piano and dirty bass – is an electrifying ‘duet’ between Santa and Pip, and one that brilliantly blurs the border between sexy and scary. The pensive, political ‘Father’s Son’ condenses the spectres of a dozen recent ecological disasters into the immortal inquiry “can we blame nature if she’s had enough of us?”, and the elegantly turbulent ‘Code Red’ bathes in an ambience that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on 1998’s From The Choirgirl Hotel. “Do this long enough you get a taste for it,” Amos sings, and the surrounding lyrics are ambiguous enough to suggest that she may have playing music, masturbation or living itself on her mind.
In a Clyde double bill, ‘Beauty Of Speed’ juxtaposes an evening’s rapture with the more complicated realities visible in “the harsh of daylight,” while ‘Roosterspur Bridge’ takes its place as this album’s ‘Northern Lad’. The luminous, offbeat ‘Almost Rosey’ channels ‘American Pie’ and boasts some of Amos’s cleverest, most intricate wordplay. A conversation between Isabel and some shadowy gentleman (a soldier? her father? a lover?), ‘Dark Side Of The Sun’ envisages the consequences of American cultural imperialism – “soon there’ll be fast food on the moon / painted in neon with ‘for sale’ signs up” – before turning the spotlight firmly on the personal and the present: “you say I’m more afraid of what / tomorrow could bring to us.” But Amos is too sharp and imaginative to leave us to wallow in despair, and what you’re likely to take away from the song is the image of endurance, the obligation to persist even in the face of hardship and oppression: “Brush back my tears and he said ‘girl / we have to soldier on / yes girl, even when we don’t feel strong.'” As usual, Biblical allusions course through many of these tracks. “Bushes” are burning on the mountain in this one; think back to ‘Yo George’ and make of that particular image what you will.
The album proper arguably ends here, but Amos has a trick or two up her sleeve yet. If ‘Posse Bonus’ is the album equivalent of one of those cheeky improv jams that are staples of her live show, then Pip’s ‘Smokey Joe’ and Santa’s ‘Dragon’ are American Doll Posse‘s magnificent encores, the former a deeply disturbing contrapuntal debate about the benefits (or otherwise) of brutal female retribution, the latter a compassionate rebuttal which bravely posits love, not violence, as the answer: “now it has come to light / the Gods they have slipped up / they forgot about the power / of a woman’s love.” It’s an extension of the dispute between these two in ‘Body & Soul’ – in which Santa advised Pip that “these devils of yours, they need love” – and one that attests to the breadth and complexity of Amos’s vision. There’s no sentimentality, no cosiness in her version of female understanding, and ‘Dragon’ – on which it’s the woman who must slay the beast – plays out with ‘Smokey Joe’s assertion that “the annihilating Feminine does not need civilizing” still echoing in your mind.
Lyrically, as some of the previous quotes demonstrate, Amos continues to cut with a very sharp scalpel indeed. If there’s a retro feel to much of the music, her subject matter remains resolutely current and contemporary. Avoiding the fey romanticism and preciousness which mars the work of some of her descendents, and veering ever closer to the complex poetry, her songwriting on Posse retains its thrilling mixture of brutal frankness and hermetic opacity, each track containing some indelible image, some surprising turn of phrase. “Genital panic,” “feeling radical in cotton,” “silken rubber gloves choking his vitriolic tongue,” “a gold star on a gendarme,” “blondes here don’t jump out of cakes,” “working her hell on that red carpet,” “boycotting trends / it’s my new look this season” – Amos is highly allusive but also colloquial, solidly structured yet apparently spontaneous, rarely sloppy or repetitious. Combined with the expressiveness of her vocals, the by now notorious ambiguities of her diction, and her immaculate musicianship, Amos’s impact is often overwhelming.
But the profundity of American Doll Posse ultimately lies in the aspects that may prove most problematic for some listeners: its concept and its scale. “The songs that have been coming to me lately, with their varied points of view, have been helping me to see how many different aspects of the self there are and that there is so much to work with, for each of us, at every stage,” Amos wrote in her conclusion to ‘Piece By Piece’, and this album feels like her practical demonstration of that statement. For what Posse offers the dedicated listener is a truly multi-vocal experience, a composite picture of contemporary American womanhood that is so rich that it ends up surpassing both national and gender specifics. What’s more, the entire album may be interpreted as a celebration of the benefits to be gleaned from looking at the world from multiple and often contradictory viewpoints – a particularly valuable endeavour in this polarised period. “Objectivity,” Isabel’s liner notes tell us, “can only be attained if you are open to another perception, even one that is contrary to your own.”
Accordingly, Amos’s women are not static creations; during the album they change through interaction with each other, their identities blurring and merging and complicating the labels that have been ascribed to them. In some ways, Amos could’ve taken the concept further – how about inviting one of those much-maligned “right-wing Christians” into the Posse? – but, even so, there’s liberation and subversion in the way in which the album tramples across gender stereotypes, locating the strength in Clyde’s vulnerability, the wisdom and potency in Santa’s sexuality, the doubt in Isabel’s political conviction. By the end, on ‘Smokey Joe’, there’s even the suggestion that Pip’s aggression may be turning to equivocation. Against the societal divisions that “pit woman against feminist,” male against female, the political against the personal, Amos constructs a kaleidoscope of paradox and contradiction, of competing and complimentary voices. In the process, what she offers us is nothing less than a guide to the possibility of surmounting repressive binary logic and of working creatively with the “many different aspects of the self” there are.
Between the concept, the blogs, Blaise Reutersward’s spectacular photography and – oh yes – the music itself, American Doll Posse provides sufficient material to sustain a thesis, not a review. Long but never sluggish, dense but never dry, this is the album as artefact – a wide open space for the listener to explore in. Whether it possesses the complete cohesion and control of Scarlet’s Walk is debatable, but, in this era of the short attention span, Amos has once again crafted a work that deliberately thwarts easy consumption, requiring instead a listener’s total sensory engagement, participation, and occasional forbearance. It’s a rare enough event in our culture, and one to be savoured, not scorned. (How often can a major-label musician be accused of indulging themselves with an excess of ideas these days?) To download bits and pieces of this album, to hear a few tracks and rush to snap judgement, seems a betrayal of the dedication and commitment that has gone into its composition. Immersion is the only solution here, and if you don’t have the time or inclination for that – well, new Ne-Yo and Natasha Bedingfield albums await you. But if you’re up for an experience, dive in, and marvel at Amos’s ability to produce yet another vital record that at once reflects and transcends our troubled times.
Vitamin String Quartet
Pieces: The String Quartet Tribute to Tori Amos Vol. 2 •••
Having tackled the music of an astonishingly diverse selection of artists (everyone from Björk through The Cure to Garth Brooks), and with over 200 releases to its credit, Vitamin Records’ String Quartet Tribute series now brings us a second volume dedicated to the work of Tori Amos, a follow-up to 2001’s generally well-received Precious Things. It’s probably fair to say that most of us have mixed feelings about this series: putting a classical spin on rock music seems a brave but somewhat foolhardy idea, and one which risks turning intense, hard-edged songs into pleasant muzak. However, while this record doesn’t entirely assuage such reservations, it’s a classy effort which serves as a testament both to Amos’s impeccable sense of melody and to the variety and adaptability of her compositions.
While Precious Things concentrated on material from Amos’s first few albums, Pieces takes an impressively broad sweep through her voluminous back catalogue, including songs from each of her studio albums bar Under The Pink and the covers project Strange Little Girls. (In a nice bit of serendipity, Amos herself has employed a string quartet for the first time on her new album American Doll Posse.) Fans will be pleased to discover that many of the song choices are far from obvious, and that some of them are, in fact, wonderfully left-field: it’s a delight to find underrated gems such as ‘Cars & Guitars’, ‘Taxi Ride’ and Tales Of A Librarian‘s ‘Snow Cherries From France’ here, each beautifully performed.
The album has a very good sense of pace and flow and opens, appropriately, with ‘Jackie’s Strength’, that extraordinary amalgam of intimate autobiography and US social history. This version can’t really hope to compete with John Philip Shenale’s sublime string arrangement on the original but it remains an affecting rendition. A playful ‘Sweet The Sting’ and a gracefully mournful ‘China’ are among the other highlights, while ‘Spark’ and ‘Professional Widow’ (yes, really!) manage to retain an amazing amount of the turbulent menace of the originals. ‘Me & A Gun’ – which Amos famously delivered a cappella – is another surprising choice, and one that doesn’t quite come off, but lovely takes on ‘1000 Oceans’ and ‘A Sorta Fairytale’ quickly compensate.
It will come as no surprise that Pieces ultimately fails to fully convey the passion, density and complexity of Amos’s music: how can it without two of the most significant components, that voice and those words? But it’s a worthy collection which offers a fresh perspective on a formidable body of work.
Filed under: album, back issues, book, review | Tags: 50 foot wave, alan pedder, anja mccloskey, danny weddup, eddi fiegel, edith frost, faun fables, fields, hannah fury, ian buchan, josephine foster, kat flint, lily fraser, mama cass, the fiery furnaces, tiffany daniels, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
The Transit Rider •••½
Anchored by the creative brain of Dawn McCarthy, Faun Fables is a rare breed of band, an avant-garde ensemble whose members appear to be in a near constant state of flux. In more recent years, McCarthy’s closest allies have been prog rock enthusiast Nils Frykdahl (Sleepytime Gorilla Museum) and performance artists Jenya Chernoff and Matt Lebofsky. If you were bewitched by 2004’s minor breakthrough The Family Album, you’ll almost certainly love The Transit Rider. Taking the dramatics to a whole new level, the album is based on material of the same-titled theatre show that McCarthy and Frykdahl developed and toured in 2002. Though the band now operates out of California, the idea for the play came about when McCarthy moved to New York and felt hopelessly stuck and held down by the subway system. Troubled by the city’s pace of life, her disconnection from nature’s cycles and rhythms led her to compose an entire song cycle about her situation, which she performed whilst singing, acting, playing instruments and running the tech at the same time.
Slotting nicely into the cycle are powerful and moving interpretations of traditional folk songs, such as ‘House Carpenter’ and an adaptation of Polish songwriter Zygmunt Konieczny’s ‘Taki Pejzaz’, translated into English by McCarthy and friends and gifted a gorgeously intense arrangement. Painting a delicate picture of abject pain, its mood is hard to shift even long after the song has finished. The sheer conviction and humanity of this interpretation is due in no small way to McCarthy’s versatile, expressive vocals (which you can also find stamped all over the new Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album).
Faun Fables’s own compositions are innovative and have a refreshingly narrative song structure, though sometimes quite bizarre. At the more unusual end of the spectrum lies the opener ‘Birth’, a song that takes train sounds and primal screams and conjoins them in an entrancingly hypnotic introduction. ‘Transit Theme’ is just as bewildering, with its dramatic chord structures and bonkers exclamation of “the tokens are 1.25! / I am the transit rider, open to public violence”. Equally confusing compositions include the slightly pretentious psych folk/prog rock-leaning ‘Fire & Castration’ – imagine Depeche Mode relocated to New Weird America – and the dialogue embracing ‘The Questioning’ (“is this a good way to sit?”…”what if the ceiling were to fall on your head?”…”do you want a piece of heart candy?”).
Despite these few OTT attempts, Faun Fables have generously stuffed the album with interesting and intriguing compositions. ‘In Speed’ is a theatrical, fast- paced portrait of a professional coffee junkie – think businesswoman in suit and trainers clutching a super-size Starbucks – and is spookily accurate. “Let’s speed up without grace and running,” sings Frykdahl in his low voice, adding “you’ve got a nail through your heart.” Elsewhere, ‘Dream On A Train’ and ‘I’d Like To Be’ convince mostly through their heartfelt synopses and carefully explored instruments.
Although it is often slightly confusing and exceedingly abstract, The Transit Rider succeeds as a magical exploration of theatre and music that managed to stir and move the listener. Of course, it might make much more sense if you watch the theatre show too (as is recommended) – then again, it might not! – but unless they bring it to Britain, we of limited funds will just have to enjoy the music and the freedom of imagination.
originally published October 5th, 2006
Dream A Little Dream Of Me:
The Life Of ‘Mama’ Cass Elliot ••••
Sidgwick & Jackson
Contrary to popular belief, body fascism did not begin with the birth of Heat magazine in 1999. Nor did it spring from the bowels of inventor Logie Baird when his ‘Televisor’ colonised with alarming speed much of the human race. Even if the fig leaf didn’t quite make Eve’s behind look big in it, the point is that people, and especially women, of a larger size have always had it hard. That’s not to say that television (and to some extent, Heat magazine) never had or no longer has an impact. Since its arrival in the late 1950s, the medium has majorly compounded the fears and insecurities of generations of women. Indeed, while the flower power epoch surely swung, there is also room to reflect on a lesser-known angle – the Slimming Sixties.
The explosion of teen girl pop singers that ushered in the decade put the focus of many promoters firmly on their protégées’ sex appeal. The Shirelles, The Crystals, The Ronettes and their like were all youthful, fresh and distinctly uncurvy. Although dieting was already rife among female performers – Dinah Washington, for example, was a diet pill addict – the added pressure of TV appearances and the dreaded extra projected pounds was immense. Then, as now, a bit of extra baggage could send a career down the dumper. Florence Ballard of The Supremes was one such example, allegedly sacked from the band in 1967 for being overweight, among other things. Nine years later, depressed, lonely and drunk, she died at just 32 years of age.
Ellen Naomi Cohen, better known as ‘Mama’ Cass Elliot also died aged 32. Not as has been so ignobly rumoured by choking on a ham sandwich, but from massive coronary heart failure as she slept, having earlier completed the final show in a wildly successful run of solo performances at the London Palladium. As this tender account of her life reveals, the dichotomy between Cass’s charismatic outward personality and her internal struggle with her own self-image was evident from a young age. Born in Baltimore during World War II and talking by the age of two, as a teenager, Cass was as intelligent and politically aware as many of the adults who surrounded her. Being fat by the age of seven had done nothing to endear her to those her own age and their rejection haunted Cass right to her grave, despite all that she went on to achieve. From her initial faltering efforts to become “the famous fat girl” she so desired to her audacious attempts to break into the group that would become The Mamas & The Papas, Eddi Fiegel carefully picks apart Cass’s famed ambition from her genuine need to be loved. Fiegel’s fondness for her subject, while clearly apparent in every tale, is admirably never allowed to cloud or bias the story. Written over nearly four years and based on more than 100 interviews, what we get here is a mostly sympathetic but balanced account of a well-loved and unique individual.
Where the book becomes unmissable is in Fiegel’s account of the final days of The Mamas & The Papas. As adultery and unrequited love tore them apart before they had even recorded their second album, Elliot’s long struggle to extricate herself from the sorry mess without losing all she had worked for is all too vivid. The band finally folded in October 1967. Elliot’s first solo album, Dream A Little Dream Of Me, followed a year later, and a second, Bubblegum, Lemonade & Something For Mama in 1969. By then, despite having a young daughter (Owen Vanessa Elliot was born in April 1969 and contributes to the book in places), Cass had a significant drug habit and went through a number of damaging relationships with assorted Lotharios and downright spongers. Even at the time of her death, she was engaged in a one-sided relationship with shady promoter George Caldwell who mysteriously disappeared after her death.
As Fiegel notes, however, Elliot wouldn’t have stood for the ‘tragic’ tag so many have lumbered her with. Her independence and resilience defied such lazy thinking. Rarely has a mould been so completely shattered than the one from which Ellen Naomi Cohen emerged – she was the people’s princess before Diana was in training bras. In her introduction, Fiegel tells how rocker David Crosby offered her $100 if she could find a single person who hated Cass. Unsurprisingly, his money went unclaimed.
originally published September 3rd, 2005
Live at the Fleece & Firkin, Bristol •••
June 25th, 2006
Warm-ups, I have realised, are not supposed to be heard by outsiders for a very simple reason – bands invariably sound awful. The singer(s) will undoubtedly be out of tune. Indeed, early on in the evening, heard through the ancient industrial walls of Bristol’s Fleece & Firkin, Fields sound like shrieking banshees in the middle of a massacre of shouty East End market stall holders. This, perhaps, is why half of the audience leave before they’ve even entered the venue. A few manage to convince themselves that it was only the roadies testing the equipment, while fans of the band wonder if singer Thorunn Antonia is in possession of a hideous cold.
So far, not really that good, and the bar staff haven’t even served a drink yet. Fortunately, all is rescued when, taking to the stage ahead of headliners Larrikin Love, Fields launch into ‘Song For The Fields’ and a hundred ears prick up in an instant – “wait a minute, I’ve heard this”. It’s one of those songs that you can’t work out whether they’ve half-inched an opening chord from Bob Dylan or from some indie club classic. People sitting down at the back begin to lean against the walls instead and gradually the whole audience moves towards the stage. At times, Antonia’s voice can seem screechy and at odds with fellow Fields vocalist Nick Peill, but generally the pair have good chemistry. After a seven-song set, including some of the new tracks on their forthcoming EP, notably ‘Roll Down The Hill’, the band depart to the genuine applause of the majority.
From tonight’s performance, it’s clear that Fields are destined to be more than just another support band; they’re fast becoming headline material for smaller venues like the Fleece. With just a little more practice and perhaps a careful eye on the watch so as to ensure the audience hear only what they’re supposed to, Fields may eventually turn into acres.
originally published July 2nd, 2006
The Fiery Furnaces
Rehearsing My Choir •••
Those of us still surviving after the Fiery Furnaces’s last long-player (length being a somewhat paradoxical notion in their terms – an ‘EP’ released earlier this year raced in at a heady 41 minutes) are surely deserving of some sort of reward. Blueberry Boat was a challenging beast in no uncertain terms; an extended rock opera invoking the spirit of Tommy, but at times coming across like a tub of acid assaulting a crazed school orchestra. Yes indeed, we who have clung on have the scars to prove it.
Certainly, it’s no idle rhetoric to say that, from the bluesy pop sensation of their cult 2003 debut Gallowsbird’s Bark onwards, Illinois-based siblings Eleanor and Matt Friedburger have always slipped through the grasping fingers of definition. Almost aggressively progressive, but with an effortless cool that The Strokes could never buy, the duo have constantly challenged listeners to absorb their oeuvre in terms of entire albums, rather than songs. It’s an almost quixotic approach in the days of 79p iTunes singles, yet utterly admirable too.
A reward of sorts comes here. In third album Rehearsing My Choir (another, Bitter Tea, is due as early as January), we find a singular conceit truly becoming of the epithet ‘concept’. The album constitutes eleven interwoven tales of Chicago from the 1930s to the 1950s, as told through the eyes and (mostly spoken) vocals of Olga Sarantos, director of the Illinois state choir for over 65 years and, more specifically, the Friedburgers’s grandmother. So bring forth stories of wounded gangsters, dodgy back basement deals and the previously unimaginable hell that is trying to make candy when you’re due to meet your father in-law for the very first time.
On first impression, the Furnaces seem much more at home here. Their tendency to soften bluesy rock into a kind of psychedelic lullaby blossoms under the restraint of shorter songs and narrative focus. Odd instruments are still the main musical nuance and there’s certainly no sign of your everyday verse-chorus-verse, but there are at least splatterings of rhythm and release – ‘The Wayward Granddaughter’ pumps along with the kind of urgency that only a didgeridoo can muster, while ‘We Wrote Letters Every Day’ sticks in the head after only a few listens. It’s this lack of salient obscurity that makes Rehearsing My Choir a much more forgiving prospect. Sarantos’ octogenarian vocals are at once commanding and brusque, yet also disturbingly reminiscent of a female Simpsons’ Barney.
The combination of Eleanor’s matter-of-fact vocals and Matt’s seemingly bottomless box of crazy instruments elevates the tales into circus and vaudeville, and yet the melancholy still slots into place. “We can talk about it, but memories are best often sung” Sarantos tells, or rather scolds us. There’s no doubt the Fieries are fighting against musical form to save us from our own predictable expectations, and to a certain extent they have succeeded in this latest endeavour. Each song floods the imagination with a slice of tasty Americana that’s light years away from the likes of Beck and Cake. For the less adventurous, however, there remains a longing pang for the halcyon days of ultra-catchy tunes and memorable riffs.
originally published September 2nd, 2005
The Fiery Furnaces
Bitter Tea ••••
Their PR will tell you that The Fiery Furnaces are a “quirky indie-pop duo”, but quirky doesn’t really even begin to cover the bases. The opening track of this fifth album in three years gives the listener a very good idea of what is to come, i.e. anything and everything. So while Eleanor Friedberger’s vocals on opener In ‘My Little Thatched Hut’ conjure up a repetitive, incantatory chant reminiscent of the sinister fairytale aura of PJ Harvey’s ‘Down By The Water’, her brother Matt’s musical mélange tells a whole different story. Tribal drums vie with bursts of electronica, while gentle acoustic guitar is stomped all over by squealing feedback. It’s Underworld meets Natalie Merchant and the resulting scuffle is noisy, unpredictable and thrilling; both parties surface bruised and grinning.
The synth on ‘Darling Black-Hearted Boy’ grates like the theme tune of a ‘70s kids’ TV show, but somehow in a good way, while the title track that follows morphs and warps the previous melody into a frantic Space Invaders-esque sonic landscape of frenzied bleeps and glitches. This is an immediate and exciting record with unpredictability as its buzzword. Eleanor’s spoken word vocal delivery is often reminiscent of Patti Smith, particularly of her ‘Land’ trilogy, and the mystical overtones present on several songs also recall some of the punk poetess’s vintage tracks. Like Smith’s, songs like ‘Oh Sweet Woods’ mix everyday settings – parking lots, anonymous hallways – with a simmering threat of violence and an otherworldly, almost religious presence, invoked here by the presence of the nameless figures pursuing the poem’s central character and the backwards vocals they speak in. It’s an undisputed album highlight, a disturbing narrative set to a funky handclap beat.
Matt played everything on the record, apart from drums, and the music here is so dazzlingly varied that the lyrics occasionally get lost in the maelstrom. But it won’t be long before a line like “till the bulldozers turned us into whole-fruit fruit bar stix and china markers” (‘Borneo’) pulls you out of your musical reverie and boggles your brain even further. The band’s inventiveness has its downside, although it’s a small one – the jagged textures and sudden changes in time signature can become somewhat wearying and you may find yourself longing for a consistent melody, though you’ll struggle to find one across the record’s epic 75 minutes. However, to criticise a band for being too inventive is perhaps unfair; I know who I’d plump for given the choice between the Fieries and any number of the formulaic radio-friendly unit shifters that flood commercial radio stations.
The Fiery Furnaces are a highly prolific band who are still brimming (overflowing even) with ideas. And though they may bewilder and occasionally frustrate, they more than compensate for this with their sheer originality and experimental verve. Those searching for classic pop song structure will find it (nearly) on ‘Benton Harbour Blues’; those searching for pretty much anything else – ‘70s punk meets the ‘Grange Hill’ theme tune anyone? – will probably find it here too. See, everybody’s happy!
originally published June 5th, 2006
50 Foot Wave
Golden Ocean ••••
Fifty feet is pretty big if you think about it, and by thinking I mean Googling, and by Googling you’ll find it’s an oddly common anecdotal measure. Only the other week, for instance, a man was walking his dog Charlie along the Great Orme cliff in Cardiff when he heard a splash from the ocean 50 feet below. “Gosh, did you hear that, Charlie”, the man may have wondered before realising that yes, Charlie had indeed heard it because Charlie was it (www.dogsinthenews.com, we love you!). But while some might find such a chestnut of interest, we at Wears The Trousers are suckers for useless, distilled fact. Indeed, to this reporter, drilling through to the no-frills zone provides as much lascivious pleasure as a tabloid gossip column does to others. So, here we go again… 50 feet is equal to the world record for women’s triple jump, a third of the height of the leaning tower of Pisa, the distance from the chin of the Sphynx to the sand it sits on and the size of a certain Queenie, according to our Peej. Oh, and it’s also the height to which this remarkable band aspire.
50 Foot Wave are two-thirds Throwing Muses (singer/guitarist Kristin Hersh and bassist Bernard Georges) and one-third drummer Rob Ahlers, and this is their first full-length album following last year’s delightfully noisy eponymous EP. Put quite simply, the trio’s deliveries are tight and piping hot, and what the songs of Golden Ocean lack in the complexity shown by some of their peers, the band’s dynamic power and crisp, razor-sharp playing more than make up for it. But that’s not to say these tunes are simple, no sir. They’re sneaky and infectious, coming up from behind to smack you with a six-string and leave you begging for more.
Those more familiar with the Muses and with Hersh’s intermittently sedate solo work may have difficulties reconciling the snarling frontwoman of 50 Foot Wave with their beloved indie rock heroine and married mother of four. Golden Ocean is fast and nasty in comparison, drenched in the feedback and power chords that can turn an ugly grunge-rock duckling into a bloody great vicious black swan. In my view, rock has been missing the hissing for far too long (same goes for handclaps, but more about that some other time). Every song seems to have some kind of story behind it, but that layer is better absorbed once your body recovers from the initial reverberations.
Golden Ocean may just awaken the inner mosh monster in anyone who hears it. ‘Long Painting’ and ‘Dog Days’ in particular conjure the blinding strobe and pointy elbows of a lost youth. It’s that rare rock beast that succeeds in really making a statement and will amply reward any Daisy Chainsaw, Husker Dü, Pixies or L7 fans looking for something familiar but new.
originally published November 7th, 2005
The Secret Boys Club EP ••••
In case you haven’t discovered her yet, believe me when I say that Kat Flint is a rare and wonderful find; recently awarded the New Lyricist Award by Channel 4, her lyrics are beautifully crafted to speak of the dangers and joys of modern life. The Secret Boys Club EP is released through Rough Trade Shops and is doing very well indeed, deservedly topping the sales of even major artists such as Arctic Monkeys and Dirty Pretty Things.
Flint has the same vocal presence as every great female solo artist; perfect and simultaneously unique. Her songs, rightfully described as “a love letter to the children we were, the adults we become and the places we make for ourselves in the world”, are deliciously nostalgic, craving the innocence we had when we were but young ‘uns. That said, it’s not simply fanciful whimsy either. Flint is smart enough to realise that we may be able to look to the past, but we’re constantly shuffling forward. ‘Anticlimax’ neatly surmises the EP’s spirit with the admirably economical lyrics, “because all I need is time, to grow up, to grow forward and to grow wise”.
Flint has the same vocal presence as every great female solo artist; perfect and simultaneously unique. Her songs, rightfully described as “a love letter to the children we were, the adults we become and the places we make for ourselves in the world”, are deliciously nostalgic, craving the innocence we had when we were but young ‘uns. That said, it’s not simply fanciful whimsy either. Flint is smart enough to realise that we may be able to look to the past, but we’re constantly shuffling forward. ‘Anticlimax’ neatly surmises the EP’s spirit with the admirably economical lyrics, “because all I need is time, to grow up, to grow forward and to grow wise”.
Opener ‘Fearsome Crowd’, arguably Flint’s masterpiece thus far, is a paranoid tale of love, childhood and surviving both, while ‘Ohio’ tells of the more sinister side of modern life, recounting a tale of prostitution in junkyards. Elsewhere, ‘Headrush’ finds Flint pleading for the Apocalypse, while ‘The Blinking’ and ‘London Lullaby’ make for an engaging pair of bitterly honest ballads.
Magical is often an overused description in the musical world, but it truly applies to this particular lady. Ironically, despite the indie uprising of recent years, her category has been partially ignored and similar talents dropped by labels; if The Secret Boys Club EP is similarly ignored, it would be a criminal offence. Don’t let it happen.
originally published June 16th, 2006
A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing ••••
With A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing, opera school dropout turned freak-folk songstress extraordinaire Josephine Foster has created a wonderful album free of form and conformity. It is a rather unconventional and exceedingly brave take on 19th Century German Lieder, which many regard as one of the classic schools of songwriting. Composers such as Schumann, Brahms and Schubert created wonderful and delicate works using the lyrics of the literary geniuses of the romantic era including Goethe and Eichendorff. Naturally, these compositions have been performed and recorded many times, yet Foster has found a way to filter them through a unique and magical lens using a mix of modern and classical instruments and a sound that reminds one of church recordings of the early 1900s.
‘An Die Musik’, Schubert’s ode to the wonders of music, opens the seven-song suite. Sounding at first quiet and delicate with rhythmical strumming and Foster’s angelic vocals, it soon develops into an electric guitar workout in which the instruments are played lazily and messily, giving one of the world’s most famous classical works a rather outlandish sound. ‘Der König in Thule’, also a Schubert composition, embraces the evanescence of love and life. A rough sounding electric guitar in lead melody accompanied by a softer countermelody sounds at first strangely modern, but after several listens appears effortlessly cool, Foster’s versatile vocal adding to her straightforward, honest adaptation.
Everything on this album has been played to emotional perfection. Foster has clearly been indulged with complete artistic freedom. It’s refreshing to listen to delicate and moving songs that have not been pushed to alien-sounding technical precision by commercially driven producers. Wolf’s ‘Verschwiegene Liebe’, a longing ode to the freedom of thought, and Brahms’s ‘Die Schwestern’, a wonderful and sound-layered piece about the unextinguishable bond between sisters, both strongly benefit from Foster’s approach; free from constraint, heavenly and moving. The instrumentation and arrangements are almost playful, always responding to the call of Foster’s voice. Schumann’s ‘Wehmut’ and ‘Auf einer Burg’ and Schubert’s ‘Nähe des Geliebten’ have such a strong recording approach, it’s as if you were discovering original works by this dark, delicious enchantress.
The songs may date back over 100 years, but in Foster’s fair and capable hands the dust never settles on these dramatic and arresting interpretations. Startling stuff.
originally published June 12th, 2006
Lily Fraser ••••
How often do we see overused phrases like “a stunning debut from a truly original new talent”? And how often does it in fact refer to a rehashing, albeit an accomplished one, of whatever is the flavour of the moment? It’s rare enough to happen across something that really strikes you as being original, let alone taking you somewhere you’ve never quite been before, but this eponymous debut recording (it’s not an ‘album’ as such, more a collection of demos) by Lily Fraser may just be one of those happy exceptions.
Necessarily, then, it’s something of an arduous task to pick out suitable comparators for the purpose of describing the music. Broad and sweeping statements are precluded and more targeted comments may only reflect an instant or two. In one lyrical section, the phrasing recalls Fish’s unusual stream of consciousness scanning – but this is no Marillion album; in another, there’s a hint of Siouxsie Sioux – but this is no post-punk proto-goth; in another still, the carefully deployed theatrics and production resemble Freddy Mercury’s more whimsical moments – but this is certainly not A Night At The Opera. Enough befuddled reviewer excuses you say? Well then, if compare we must, the readiest benchmark that comes to mind is Kate Bush; not primarily because Fraser shares that auteur’s fragile but powerful upper register and falsetto, but more the inventiveness she infuses into her four-minute dysfunctional psycho-dramas. That said, the vocal performances throughout are uniformly stunning, swooping down from an angelic choir into a dark, vengeful siren in the space of just a few notes.
The unusual mix of instruments certainly helps to set the tone. Magical washes of harp and haunting cello create an ominous musical subtext, particularly on tracks like ‘Exposed’ where the two instruments are played in a manner that could only be referred to as riffing. Urgency is also found in opener ‘Shout It Out’ with its dance-based rhythms and Fraser’s insistent vocal setting out a manifesto for what is to come. It’s as if communicating her thoughts is a psychological imperative, not just a collection of ditties. ‘Man To Man’ presents an ironic hymn to the glorious sadness of low self-esteem and the futility of seeking real significance in meaningless sexual encounters, while ‘Beautiful Life’ restores the yang to the previous yin by showing that even in life’s shady undergrowth lies beauty and value. ‘About You’ introduces an air of melodrama, with a 1930s matinee idol introduction setting the tone for a scathing attack on the stunted emotions of certain men, while ‘Disagree’ and ‘It’s You’ echo the sombre danse macabre. The juxtaposition of moods seen with the warm, meditative ‘Which One Am I?’- a slice of bluesy, Gothic folk á la All About Eve – and ‘Old Devil Shine’, which spins a cautionary noir yarn, its timeless mood contrasting with unsettling gramophone-textured vocal sections, is undeniably affecting.
Impending tragedy and Victorian melodrama are very much the order of the day with Fraser, and the sheer depth and quality of the recording is little short of breathtaking. On the basis of these first though hardly tentative steps, it is clear that she and her unconventional blend of simultaneously engaging and disturbing sounds are close to creating a Kick Inside for the 21st Century.
originally published March 31st, 2006
Calling Over Time ••••
Wonder Wonder ••••
Edith Frost is living, wonderful and irrefutable proof that even cowgirls really do get the blues. Her knack with a minor key and simple but never underspun stories is, or should be, the envy of many. Why she is not revered in wider circles remains a mystery – one that may well be favourably and deservedly solved when her long-awaited fourth album It’s A Game is released later this year. As a generous precursor to this long anticipated arrival, Drag City has graciously reissued all three of her previous efforts to reacquaint us with their charge.
Signed to the label in 1994 after mailing in a copy of her demo alongside a fan letter to Drag City luminary Will Oldham (aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy), Frost’s first release was a self-titled EP fashioned out of those very same four-tracks. It was followed in 1997 by the album Calling Over Time, an unprepossessing gem of a record showcasing a voice not much unlike a Patsy Cline for the modern disaffected. In the wake of a painful divorce, Texan-born Frost, then aged 31, relocated to Chicago from New York where she had been playing in a number of long-forgotten bands. Having befriended members of the Drag City stable and other Chicagoan icons of indie, including Gastr Del Sol, Rian Murphy, Eleventh Dream Day’s Rick Rizzo and The High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan, the sessions for Calling Over Time certainly had no shortage of talent in the studio. That the results live and breathe as they do (albeit with a slight sense of spacey disconnectedness) is testament to the skilful pool of players. The lasting sense is one of reassuring melancholia; that is to say, her songs are rarely depressing – they’re a little too detached and distant for such extremities – but somehow comforting in their minimalistic mulling over of fate’s crueller twists. Standout tracks include the divorce bruiser ‘Temporary Loan’, the achingly pragmatic ‘Too Happy’, the heartbreaking ‘Wash Of Water’ and the weary defeatism of ‘Albany Blues’.
Frost returned the following year with the even hazier but more meaty Telescopic. Opening with the fuzz-strewn lo-fi indie pop of ‘Walk On The Fire’, a dark and mournfully menacing song that early Liz Phair would have chewed an arm off for, the album signalled a clear progression from its sparser predecessor. Production duties were fulfilled by the curiously monikered Adam & Eve, better known as Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema of Drag City signings Royal Trux. Other contributions came from the ever-present Rian Murphy and Tsunami’s Amy Domingues. Lyrically, Telescopic mostly offers more of the same soul-searching of her previous releases, with one notable exception. ‘You Belong To No One’ is a cabaret revenge song, a sashaying fuck-you that runs rings around her lonesome schtick and never fails to raise a smile. Musically, ‘Bluish Bells’ is further confirmation of Frost’s ear for an ingratiating mind-trick. Amid pleasingly retro jangly keyboard effects and an inobtrusive fuzz guitar motif lies a melody that’s lifted from an old Willie Nelson song played backwards. The gorgeous ballad, ‘Tender Kiss’, is similarly impressive, mixing violin, flute and a subtle complex programmed drum pattern with some of her finest vocal harmonies.
As mirrored by the simplicity of its quietly dramatic and organic sleeve, Wonder Wonder signified a step away from Telescopic‘s thicker fog of indie aspirations. That’s not to say that Frost had returned to her humbler origins – Wonder Wonder is a much more ambitious and focused record than her previous work, once again featuring Rian Murphy on production and a dozen other players, not to mention Steve Albini as sound engineer. Many of the songs have the feel of a twisted orchestra, but the central stylistic touchstone is subdued and thoughtful country. Songs like the snappy title track and the immensely hummable ‘Cars & Parties’ (surely her great lost single) sit comfortably alongside trickier material. ‘The Fear’ is reminiscent of an eerie midnight walk through a haunted fairground, while ‘True’ is the very definition of desolate. She also gifts us what is surely a country standard in waiting with ‘Honey Please’. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Emmylou Harris cover it at some point in the future. Closing with ‘You’re Decided’, a break up song laced with despair and regret, the listener is left with little doubt that Edith Frost’s ability to convey any emotion precisely and without lyrical excess is a wonder in itself.
Like Cissy, the feet-finding heroine from ‘Even Cowgirls Get The Blues’, Edith Frost has hitched a ride with many a kind friend, travelling with them through a myriad of musical landscapes. Ultimately though, she has been at the helm of her own evolution and these timely reissues should plenty whet the appetites of fans of Lisa Germano, Cat Power, Barbara Manning, and, of course, Will Oldham before the next instalment comes along.
originally published August 22nd, 2005
Subterfuge EP ••••
Self-styled Trauma Queen Hannah Fury has at last shuffled off her musical slumber. It’s been six long years since her unsettling debut album, The Thing That Feels, and three since her last EP. What has she been doing? Well, not losing one iota of her touch for a start; Subterfuge is the most sinister thing to come out of Texas since the Bush Administration, and all the better for it. Kicking off with a deliciously subversive, almost perverse take on The Turtles’ 1969 hit ‘You Showed Me’, Fury teasingly twists and plays with the melody and phrasing to great effect. And while it’s not as nakedly ambitious or successful as her gloriously gut-wrenching cover of ABBA’s ‘The Winner Takes It All’ (from 2001’s sublime Meathook EP), it sets up Subterfuge’s overarching ‘love me or else’ theme very nicely indeed.
The sheer intensity of ‘My Next Victim’ continues this motif, with hell hath no fury lyrics like “you don’t want none of my sugar / you just want that skanky snatch, no offense to her” delivered with an eerie and unwavering focus, its very matter-of-factness recalling Lisa Germano’s ‘…A Psychopath’ reverse engineered and seen through an opiate haze. The fabulously titled ‘Girls That Glitter Love The Dark’ is equally impressive with its From The Choirgirl Hotel-era Tori Amos flourishes and lush, hypnotic multi-tracked vocals. Illuminating couplets like “girls that glitter defile hope / we think that love is just tightening that sad little rope” languish in the mix with a general air of self-destructive obsession.
But perhaps the finest distillation of Fury’s particular brand of musical malaise is the multimedia track, ‘Carnival Justice (The Gloves Are Off) Part II’. Whether heard alone or in tandem with Chris Ohlson’s creepy video featuring a pair of custom-made marionettes (The Queen of Hearts and Anathema Rose to their friends), it’s an undeniably spine-tingling experience. So precisely layered are the distorted, whispery vocals, it’s almost as if she were singing in parseltongue. Needless to say, it’s the kind of song that the religious far right would love to play backwards in fear (hope?) of finding an ode to the devil. Which would be rather silly regardless, because they would then miss out on some of Fury’s best writing to date – “if you think you scored, your vision must be blurred / welcome one and all to the Theatre of the Absurd / mmmmmy heart is like the Moulin Rouge / all lit up in subterfuge” – with all its Jean Genet-conjuring dramaturgy.
Whether or not Fury intends a literal interpretation of ‘A Latch To Open’s closing sound effect of an emancipated bird fleeing its prison (and I’m inclined to believe she doesn’t), it’s tempting to see it as something symbolic. A brusque farewell to writer’s block, perhaps. For as wonderful as this enchanting EP undoubtedly is, it’s ostensibly a prelude to a far greater prize; that long-awaited full-length coming later this year. Amen!
originally published February 20th, 2006