Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Tori Amos 1: Little Earthquakes

To this day it’s still mistaken for Kate Bush, but Little Earthquakes immediately established Tori Amos as a dominant talent, and one of the most revered artists of the ‘90s. Not that this happened overnight. This was actually her second album on the Atlantic label, having since convinced the industry powerhouse to delete and bury Y Kant Tori Read, her eponymous hair-metal debut most notable today for employing Matt Sorum a year before Slash saw him play with The Cult. Having decided, rightfully, that the image that album perpetuated wasn’t really her, she determined to follow her instincts and find her “real” sound.
It took a while, and several producers, but Little Earthquakes is the statement of a woman truly comfortable in her own skin, and would become a guru for thousands of young women (and, to be fair, men) aching to be the same. It was an appealing package: a classically schooled pianist, with frizzy red hair and a contextually direct performance style: she eschewed the stool for a bench, while she’d straddle, half facing the audience, almost daring them to stare.
This presentation would be especially provocative whenever she performed “Me And A Gun”, a harrowing a cappella piece recounting her experience of being raped. This factoid was never ignored during the promotion of the album, but unfortunately it would be mistaken as the main theme of “Silent All These Years”, the excellent first single. It may have something to do with that, but the larger message is that of speaking up, and not letting your voice be silenced.
The determination not to be victimized needn’t be restricted to sexual assault, and both “Crucify” and “Girl” can be taken as feminist anthems at their most basic. “Precious Things”, with its horror movie arrangement, and the cabaret-style “Leather” are songs about relationships, partially informed by growing up with a minister father. Speaking of which, “Winter” would appear to be more directly about him, but again, it’s a plea for self-acceptance, and the way her emotion catches in her throat on the final chorus will do the same for the listener. The string arrangement is suitably dramatic without being overblown. Some timely comic relief comes with “Happy Phantom”, a vaudeville jig about avenging one’s tormentors from beyond the grave.
Because her style is opaque, and informed by pagan and other influences, the songs are easy to misinterpret. “Mother”, a lengthy solo piece, conjures images of childhood, possible abuse and dancing lessons. The title track provides more of a sense of closure after “Me And A Gun”. So things like “China” and “Tear In Your Hand”, with their easy metaphors, rise above as excellent, catchy pop.
These interpretations will likely be scoffed at by more learned individuals; as a male there is no way I can begin to understand what it’s like to be female. But for whatever the reason, Little Earthquakes was worth all the work Tori Amos put into it, and it still triggers emotional reactions with every play. And its simple girl-and-her-piano sound was a welcome alternative in the early grunge era. (In fact, not only did the singles house highly sought-after outtakes from the album, she even rearranged “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for voice and piano, which Kurt Cobain himself appreciated.)

Tori Amos Little Earthquakes (1992)—4

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