Tag Archives: Tori Amos

The QH Blend’s “100 @ 30”: [1 thru 20]

Correct!

Spice Girls (1) / Kylie Minogue (2) / Donna Summer (3) / Brandy (4) / Seal (5)

Spiceworld (Virgin, 1997): My desire to grasp “the groove” combined with curiosities for musical epochs gone by when I encountered this album. Further, my appreciation for character in a voice―not just a voice―stemmed from this LP. Spiceworld also proved that producing good music didn’t guarantee fair appreciation from music critics―popular music politics aren’t always just. The Spice Girls were the reason I picked up a pen to write about music and give voice to artists / fans who didn’t have one. 

Kylie Minogue (deConstruction, 1994): Kylie Minogue made me relearn everything I thought I knew about pop song structure at the time. The “suites” that were fashioned on the album weren’t laborious, instead they formed their own patterns. In regard to the actual texture of the music and Minogue’s voice, it was the right blend of maturity, evolution and exploration that captured me.

The Wanderer (Geffen, 1980) Donna Summer never fit into the traditional slot that black women were meant to stay in―musically speaking or otherwise. I was enamored with The Wanderer, but it would be years before I would hear its influence on other women (Madonna, Kylie Minogue) that I favored too. I’ve often remarked that this record was the first “dance-pop departure” vehicle that set that standard that dance-pop was not the only mode pop operated in. Summer didn’t just create that model, she stamped it with this album.

Human (Epic, 2008): Personally, this album has been an emotional companion for me since its release; in the context of Brandy’s legacy I think it was her most consistent thematically. Human had Brandy putting her own experiences to a sonic backdrop that was timely (production wise), but still had that “Brandy feel” to it. I am not sure that she’ll ever top this record.

Human Being (Warner Brothers, 1998): What a songwriter, but due to him being someone of color he was marginalized on both ends of the music spectrum. It’s a shame, because Seal’s ability to work within a soul framework without losing pop’s melody stood second-to-none. This album was darker and maybe that’s why it received such a cold shoulder at the time. I’ve always loved its stormy appeal.

100-2

Cyndi Lauper (6) / Culture Club (7) / Sophie Ellis-Bextor (8) / Cathy Dennis (9) / Madonna (10)

Hat Full of Stars (Epic, 1993): Hat Full of Stars crossed folk, R&B, dance and alternative; Lauper’s style on this was very New York and it made the record sound big, especially listening as a teenager in the summer of 2002 when I copped it. Her songwriting was never better, you can really hear it on “Who Let in the Rain,” “Feels Like Christmas” and “Someone Like Me”.

Colour By Numbers (Virgin, 1983): An album that always comes immediately to mind as living up to its hype. I loved how sharp the music on this was, but not so slick that it didn’t leave room for Culture Club’s character. “Black Money,” an ultimate tearjerker, I realized I had to “grow into” with life experience to appreciate.

Shoot From the Hip (Polydor, 2003): I like that even when her first record painted Bextor in a corner creatively, she made another album that pushed back against pop being tagged as, you guessed it, dance-pop. There are some floor fillers here, but they don’t sacrifice the arc of this album pulling from other places for its inspiration.

Am I the Kinda Girl? (Polydor, 1996): I remember the first time I heard this album and I was just blown away. The way the 1990’s alternative tunage interacted with 1960’s pop was gorgeous. That something this refreshing wasn’t more broadly known continues to sadden me.

American Life (Warner Brothers, 2003): A lot of people incorrectly pegged American Life as Madonna trying to admonish others when she was examining herself. Musically it was her third in a four part electronic quartet that concluded with Confessions on a Dancefloor (2005). Granted Confessions was warmer at its surface, but American Life won me over as the last great ballad vehicle for Madonna.

100-3

Melanie C (11) / Carly Simon (12) / Tori Amos (13) / ABBA (14) / Kim Wilde (15)

Northern Star (Virgin, 1999): The visceral space Melanie C occupied fascinated me as a teenager. I don’t want to say this was a soundtrack to my angst, but that’s slightly accurate. The longing, the curiosity and how the LP bared its fangs…wow. Its underlying sensitivity spun well on the title piece and “Closer”. They’re just gorgeous recordings.

Playing Possum (Elektra, 1975): Never understood the critical drubbing this got. Even though I enjoyed the two previous Richard Perry produced predecessors, Playing Possum was curvier. Its sex appeal was seductive and comforting;Simon was brainy (and busty) when it came to her wordplay on this set. 

From the Choirgirl Hotel (Atlantic, 1998):  From the Choirgirl Hotel was my introduction to Tori Amos a decade ago. Having had this as an entry point, it set the bar Amos repeatedly met as I began trekking through her albums. I loved how succinct Choirgirl was, its combination of electronic and classical music enthralled.

The Visitors (Polar, 1981): ABBA really outdid themselves with this album. Pop acts are supposed to stay behind the lines of “inoffensive” and “innocuous,” but ABBA went noir with The Visitors. Man, you have everything from the personal to the voyeuristic on this effort and it’s (still) superbly catchy. 

Catch as Catch Can (RAK, 1983): Catch as Catch Can’s charm is somewhat unidentifiable. Just as strong as the two previous RAK era albums that came before it, Catch held glossier grooves and assured vocal performances. It was the ideal cap to that first part of her sound.

100-4

Mandy Moore (16) / Lupe Fiasco (17) / Jody Watley (18) / Dannii Minogue (19) / Prince (20)

 Amanda Leigh (Storefront, 2009): I really loved that this was the summation of Moore’s Coverage (2003) and Wild Hope (2007).  Amanda Leigh placed its affection directly in the pocket of 70’s pop and a keen ear will hear her many influences―notably the Carpenters. Moore as a singer made this album a real treat as she wore a variety of hats depending on the song being handled.

Food & Liquor (Atlantic, 2006): My first hip-hop record. I have to be honest, it was my hormones that drew me to Lupe Fiasco; once his music hit my ears, I was a fan. His usage of samples and how he built his stories around them was beautiful. I had never heard hip-hop sound mournful and emotional―yet, there was this devil may care approach in how the songs were expressed. 

Midnight Lounge (Avitone, 2003): Jody Watley has one of the most progressive bodies of work in R&B. From album-to-album, Watley preserved her persona while refining her sound. When I heard Midnight Lounge, its mix of soul and electronica was effortless; the record was revolutionary for Watley and R&B music.

Neon Nights (London, 2003): Where dance and pop intersected best in the last 15 years; Dannii Minogue’s Neon Nights was the record I danced to when I started (gay) clubbing. Outside of its obvious nostalgia, the LP has held up in the ensuing years―especially when compared to the plastic EDM peddled now. 

Parade (Warner Brothers, 1986): Coming off of Around the World in a Day (1985)―Prince at his most pop―the Minneapolis titan managed to rope back in his black base without sacrificing his roving (genre) eye. This album was free, sexy and practical too. He kept churning out some serious master jams, but this LP remains at the summit of Prince’s output.

[Editor’s Note: Please visit your local record store or online retailer for information on availability.-QH]

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Mother Revolution: Tori Amos’ “The Beekeeper” Turns 10

Outtake from The Beekeeper photo sessions

Outtake from The Beekeeper photo sessions

It was very conscious with Scarlet’s Walk and The Beekeeper that I wanted to embody the Mother Maiden and core essences within the being―because I find a lot of women, especially in this time of the right wing, don’t know how to be spiritual and sexual.

Either they’re puritanical, or their tits are hanging out all the time―that’s been a real bee in my bonnet, the program that [tells women] to be sexual. To counter that, you have to be nasty. I grenade that idea right out of the water! One side of yourself might be that vulgar tart, and I’ll hang out with her. I don’t mind a dirty girl. But what I find tragic is when we, as women, become not the subject of our own story, but someone else’s object.

That, to me, is playing into this role that women have held in Christianity for a long, long time. I refuse to be victimized by Christianity’s misrepresentation of our great mothers. I want to be an integrated woman.

Pulled from a 2006 Rolling Stone interview, Amos’ quote summarized a brief, albeit exciting chapter in her discography. Known for making the piano as intense a rock-and-roll instrument as the guitar, Amos’ approach had made her one of the leading talents in popular music. However, Amos was not going to retain her position as a risk-taker confined to the genre grip of alternative music expectationsfrom fans or critics.

The Beekeeper (Epic, 2005)Amos’ eighth recordwas received as a concession, or surrender, for broader pop acceptance. Was Amos, a newly minted wife and mother at this point, unable to maintain the fire that sparked her 1990s releases?

Mothers and wives can’t be rock-and-rollers; they surely that can’t be sex symbols! Though many female performers, genres aside, had shown this as false, the thought didn’t die. It went to the root of Amos’ argument of how women were (and are) viewed in society, subject to the heavy gaze of male scrutiny.

As ever, Amos readied herself to challenge that thinking with The Beekeeper. The cerebral, sexy sides it offered, like a foreign fruit, met apprehension. Those that indulged tasted Amos at her richest peak of flavor.

The History

Amos had reached her (first) creative apogee with From the Choirgirl Hotel (Atlantic, 1998). That combustible mingling of her piano pop and electronica had been a coup. Unfortunately, label politics began suffocating Amos and she wandered through the end of her contractual obligations to Atlantic Records with To Venus and Back (1999) and Strange Little Girls (2001). Released from that career abyss, Amos ventured to greener pastures at Epic Records.

Tori Amos, circa 2005

Tori Amos, circa 2005

Though the label later turned into another trap for Amos, she initiated her tenure there smoothly. Scarlet’s Walk (2002) immediately followed her signing to Epic and ushered in the second Tori Amos renaissance.

Akin to the ambitious sprawl of predecessor Joni Mitchell’s mid-70s recordings, Scarlet’s Walk was a rebirth. The experimentation with jazz music was unmistakable; songs such as “A Sorta Fairytale,” “Don’t Make Me Come to Vegas” and “Your Cloud” bore a light grooviness.

Amos calmly tuned Scarlet’s follow-up out of its autumn chamber pop and into something equatorialand continually rhythmic.

The Record

Theme continued to be the nexus of Amos’ recordings. The Beekeeper tackled the systemic condition of gender role identification of women through the patriarchal eyes of Christianity. It was the religiousand subsequently culturalidea that women were only allowed to inhabit two spaces: “the mother” or “the whore”. In her own words, Amos sought to “marry the Mary’s” that influenced women throughout historyMary, Mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene.

Additional analysis included Amos grouping the songs in various “gardens” according to lyrics; parallels also fell between that and the relationship of the bee, its hive and their beekeeper.

Despite Amos’ labyrinthine narrative, the songwriting of the LP was acute. Romance, betrayal, mortality and how women experienced these things and were empowered by them took precedence. Amos had crafted another record similar in shape to Scarlet’s Walk that forsook the overly cryptic approach common in her lyrics post-Boys for Pele (Atlantic, 1996).

While Amos was married and mothering her (then) young daughter, she still had much to say. America at the dawn of the 2000s was just trekking into the Iraq War; the conservatism that held the country in its sway was pervasive too.

"Sweet the Sting" single cover

“Sweet the Sting” single cover

With a quiet, insurrectionary stance, the pianist / vocalist addressed the political climate with “Barons of Surburbia,” “General Joy” and “Mother Revolution”.

The subject matter of the mentioned trio of songs couldn’t obscure their musical sexiness; part of that was owed to the contributions of Matt Chamberlain  (drums) and Jon Evans (bass). Both men had played with Amos on her albums and tours for a few years. The three artists laid down her curviest tunes with “Sweet the Sting,” “Witness” and “Hoochie Woman”all those works had background vocals courtesy of the London Gospel Community Choir.

Amos known for keeping her lyrical eye on others turned it on herself to furnish revealatory material. Whether recalling the passing her of brother (“Toast”), her maternal joy (“Ribbons Undone”) or passing the torch from mother to daughter (“The Beekeeper”), Amos unguarded mesmerized.

Her pen remained sharp even when the topics were soft. Love and trust were eloquently framed on the album opener “Parasol”a career highlight“Jamaica Inn” and “Sleeps With Butterflies”. The latter song could be called a “general love song,” but was artfully arranged with harmonies that gave it a “Tori twist”.

Amos’ sense of humor, often not seen enough in her music, grinned through on songs like “The Power of Orange Knickers” (with Damien Rice) and “Ireland”. They made for a refreshing listening journey.

The album clocked in at 19 tracks; length became sort of a sonic stumbling block for Amos by now. Interestingly, The Beekeeper would be the second album, after To Venus and Back, to not have b-sides readily available. But, three bonus cuts from The Beekeeper sessions did emerge: “Garlands” (on the limited DVD edition of the LP), “Dolphin Song” and “Not David Bowie” (on Piano: A Collection / Rhino, 2006).

Bright in its playful exploration of pop and jazz, The Beekeeper was friendlier than Scarlet’s Walk. As a producer, Tori Amos should have been proud of the record’s amity, even if it would be misconstrued.

The Impact

“Sleeps With Butterflies” was the first selection to introduce Amos’ new album to the public. The song was issued as a “promotional single” and thusly not available to fans physically. “Sleeps With Butterflies” hit American airwaves on 1/10/05; digital availability to fans came on 1/12/05.

The single found favor on the now defunct-U.S. Radios & Records AAA chart (#2); founded in 1973, the station/magazine allowed quirkier pop, alternative and rock music to reach audiences. It met its demise via absorption into VNU Media in 2006, a parent company of Billboard. Otherwise, “Sleeps With Butterflies,” Amos’ most commercially accessible single, created no ripples on any other major American or international chart.

Amos in the gardens of The Beekeeper

Amos in the gardens of The Beekeeper

The Beekeeper released in the global markets on 2/21/05 with the United States following on 2/22/05.

The album debuted strong across the world: U.S. Billboard 200 #5, U.K. #24, Canada #16, Germany #8, Norway, #6, ARIA #8. Released in conjunction with the LP was Piece By Piece; the book was written by Amos and renowned writer / feminist, Ann Powers. In the book, Amos discussed her personal life, and career, leading up to The Beekeeper

In its U.S. run overall, the album moved 295,000 copies; Amos’ sales had entered a slide and some saw The Beekeeper’s figures as impoverished after the chart restoration of Scarlet’s Walk.

The album and book met fair critical reception; Jon Pareles of The New York Times remarked favorably of the long player:

Ms. Amos will never be a conventional songwriter. She established herself in the 1990s with musically intricate but startlingly blunt songs about a young woman’s desires and traumas, gaining fans who have stayed with her as she moved from confession to character studies, from storytelling to abstraction. She still has a lot on her mind: lust, faith, motherhood, inconstancy, war, restlessness, death. And she has enough ambition to swirl them together in songs that spin dreamlike images and take musical detours at whim.

The Beekeeper is a generous, even overstuffed album, 19 songs and 79 minutes long, with an elaborate scheme involving six “gardens” of songs inspired by the six-sided cells of a honeycomb. (Ms. Amos has no fear of preciousness.) The lyrics are still collages of impressions, though usually with enough clues to piece them together. But The Beekeeper is also her most down-to-earth album in years, because Ms. Amos has decided she doesn’t have to pack every impulse into every song. Sometimes, now, a simple melody and a steady groove are enough.

However, not everyone was convinced of the pop sensitivity surrounding The Beekeeper. Mike Barthel of The Village Voice aligned his allegiance firmly with inaugural trilogy of Amos’ discography:

The Beekeeper is Tori-by-numbers, which isn’t necessarily bad—“Barons of Suburbia” whips the riff from “Precious Things” into the kind of ecstatic coda “Precious” itself builds to in concert. But mainly there’s either promising melodies (the “Crucify”-aping “Parasol”) ruined by cringe-y lyrics, or decent lyrical ideas executed like a Yoplait commercial. (“This is sooo good.” “Pirates good!” Cue bongos.)

If there’s a defining moment, it’s the coda of “Witness.” Backed by a gospel choir (!), you repeat the line “thought I had a witness,” but where it should be accusatory, the straight-from-the-Tori Amos-magnetic-poetry-set word boy dribbles from your mouth like half-chewed crumb cake over the lips of an Alzheimer’s patient. Also, one song has mandolins and bongos. Holy shit.

“Sleeps With Butterflies”

Directed By: Laurent Briet

Amos embarked on the corresponding live show for The Beekeeper, The Original Sinsuality Tour, on 4/1/05 in Clearwater, Florida. The show traveled across the world to return to American shores (Los Angeles) on 9/17/05. While thrilling audiences on the road, two more promotional singles were lifted from The Beekeeper: “Sweet the Sting” and “Cars and Guitars”. The selections made minimal-to-no impact on any charts.

In the decade since its appearance, The Beekeeper stands divisive among fans and critics. The Beekeeper let Amos balance contentment with confrontation, looping back around to refute the original issue that women couldn’t occupy multiple spaces at once. Mothers and wives could rock, could roll, could love, be sexy and smart. Tori Amos had “married the Mary’s,” and then some.

Ranking: Semi-Classic

[Editor’s Note: The Beekeeper is readily in print, digitally and physically. For current information on Tori Amos, visit her official website.-QH]

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The QH Blend’s Records of 2014

Sample of The QH Blend's 2014 music selections

Sample of The QH Blend’s 2014 music selections

The QH Blend unveils its selections for 2014 via Blogcritics. Please click here to see which albums made the cut and my thoughts on said recordings. See below for individual reviews for albums included in my 2014 list.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor: Wanderlust / Johnnyswim: Diamonds / Kelis: Food / Kimbra: The Golden Echo / Lenny Kravitz: Strut* / Jennifer Lopez: A.K.A. / Kylie Minogue: Kiss Me Once / Jody Watley: Paradise

[Editor’s Note: *―denotes originally published on Blogcritics.]

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