October 18, 2001

Feminizing Manly Music

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It’s been three years since From the Choirgirl Hotel, and it looks like Tori Amos fans will have to wait a bit longer for some original music. However, the orange haired piano prodigy just released the next best thing. Strange Little Girls is an album of reworked classics from rock icons like The Beatles and The Velvet Underground, along with some current acts such as Eminem and Depeche Mode. However, contrary to what many may expect, this is not a covers album.

The pattern of the disc, although not all tracks follow suit, deals with songs written by men where women are objectified or mistreated. Amos reinvents each song as if a woman delivered it (if the song contains a woman, that woman becomes the singer). In the liner notes, Amos supplements the reinterpretations with pictures posing as the woman associated with each track. She preserves the lyrics in most cases, but takes liberties with the melodies and tempos, making these songs her own. While groups like Alien Ant Farm are speeding up “Smooth Criminal,” Amos is pursuing a revolutionary task. She asks the listener to discover the music over again, from a new perspective.

If you are familiar with her earlier material, you will be comfortable with this disc. After listening to Under the Pink and From the Choirgirl Hotel, it is clear that Amos’ signature is all over these songs. Her distinct voice modulation and varied vocal deliveries are her trademarks, along with her piano playing. Her interpretation of Eminem’s “’97 Bonnie and Clyde,” as the dying wife locked in the trunk of her husband’s car, testifies to that fact. She belts out the chorus line “Just the Two of Us” eerily, as if possessed by the character, wondering what will happen to her daughter.

Amos performs some radical transformations on the disc. Neil Young fans, excited about a new version of their hero’s hit, “Heart of Gold,” may experience severe shock. Amos’ version is set to a rhythm more along the lines of “Keep on Rocking in the Free World.” Gone is the soft voice and subtle chord progression of Young, replaced with a ghostly croon lost in a post-grunge guitar riff.

However, not all of the album’s songs stray from their originals. Amos’ renditions of “New Age” by the Velvet Underground and “I’m Not in Love” by 10cc, for example, are true to their templates. On the latter, Amos simply switches the speaker, changing the perspective from a playful boy to a dead-serious girl. In its true form, “I’m Not in Love” has a seemingly mocking chorus, nearly causing it to be a spoof of sentiment, but here the mood is somber with definitive proclamations such as: “I’m not in love, so don’t forget it/ It’s just a silly phase I am going through.”

Amos takes a lot of chances on this album. By recasting old songs, she allows her perspective to appear more clearly and gives listeners a basis of comparison for furthur exploration of the original. Unfortunately, with risk can come disillusionment; case in point, Amos’ version of “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” Amos takes a Beatles classic, an amalgam of three completely unrelated songs, and turns it into an ironic statement about the legitimacy of the 2nd Amendment. She extends the song to 4 times its original length, rearranges the lyrics, and muddles the message over disorganized instrumentation. In addition to this transgression, she redoes Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” consequently redefining the term “music to slit your wrists to.” When you hear the song’s lyrics at a lethargically slow pace, rather than having them screamed into your skull, you start to miss the chaotic and grinding guitar work.

But, all is not negative. The songs are a piece of Amos’ soul. This is not on the level of Jimi Hendrix completely erasing all memories of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” However, it is an incredibly gutsy performance by an extremely talented singer/songwriter. But playing with established work may be more dangerous than playing with fire; it is really hit or miss, and this album scatters at best.

Archived article by Nikhil Swaminathan