I remember being just out of college, working at a Borders in San Antonio, and there were a whole bunch of us Toriphiles working together. Tori was coming to town for her Choirgirl Hotel tour, so our store had come up with a writing contest, for which we employees were ineligible, and the winner would receive two tickets to the show. Our prizes for being judges were personally autographed pictures of Tori Amos. Mine was a picture of Tori wearing this freaked out costume over this abstract art-like bed. One of my co-workers saw the pictures and said. `She must not have that many friends…” “Why?” I responded. “Because a real friend wouldn’t let her wear that or go out in an outfit like that.”
That was funny but very poignant when it comes to artists who have too much creative control. I believe that some of the best artists surround themselves with yes men and women who are so relieved to be in the artist’s inner circle that they are afraid to reflect some much needed constructive criticism when needed to reel in their egos on record, on stage or on the silver screen. Who’s to say if great artists and thespians like Brando and even Michael Jackson would have been like if they had bullshit detectors in their professional posses? Worse yet, what happens to artists is when they become stars they lose touch with their audiences. At the beginning of their careers they seem to be in touch with their fans, being starving artists, themselves, but when they climb to the top some seem to lose that artistic hunger.
This brings me back to Tori Amos and her new album American Girl Posse. Tori combats this creative struggle by creating lyrical personas to reflect some of her most extraordinary and explosive songs in recent memory. The characters she uses are the sensual and Aphrodite-esque Santa; the documentarian with a revolutionary spirit Isabel; the eccentric artist Clyde searching for souls of people underneath their masks; the Glam rocker who resembles the dark side of Amos back in her days of Y Kant Tori Read. And then there’s Tori herself who as a while has created her most challenging and most convoluted record since Boys for Pele. There are some exciting and excellent songs, and yet there are some of her most frustrating missteps committed to vinyl.
One of my favorite tracks finds Isabel singing about “The Madness of King George” on her anti-Bush song, “Yo George.” I have lost interest in these, now cliché, Bush bashing songs that been released by everyone from Neil Young to Bright Eyes. But Isabel’s song is a simple little piano ditty without anger, just a soft and honest vocal using her words to voice her displeasure of our least popular President in history. The first track “Big Wheel” is a killer song, one of my favorites on the album, sung sexily by Amos. It has a kind of country-meets-rock sound, with hints of a waltz thrown in with her sultry lyrics, “I’m an M-I-L-F don’t you forget.” It rocks and is one that will linger in your subconscious long after Posse has ended.
Isabel strikes back at “Mr. Bad Man” in another stellar track just as sweet as “Yo George” with a little more syrup on top. It’s catchier, but just as memorable as she sings “But everyday I know that I may just be closer to the sea of frozen words that even soldiers would lay down their swords for.” Isabel’s wish is that her words will spark a revolution in the heads and hearts of the armed and the powerful everywhere. Clyde sings “Girl Disappearing” with stirring strings floating all the way through this beautiful song that would have fit perfectly on Under the Pink. She sings “the girl’s right in front of me, this girl’s disappearing to some secret prison.”
I also love Santa’s “Secret Spell,” which is the best song R.E.M. never recorded. You can practically hear Michael Stipe singing this song with Mike Mills’s backing harmonies and Peter Buck jamming his riffs on this song. Which leaves me wondering why didn’t Santa/Tori ask Stipe to sing/duet on this amazing song that has hit single written all over it? And by the way, whatever happened to the Amos/Stipe collaboration “It Might Hurt a Bit,” originally scheduled for release way back for the Don Juan Demarco soundtrack? Will we this unreleased gem ever be set free for all Tori-philes to relish in its magic and beauty?
Oh well, where was I? Back to the Posse…
Isabel’s my favorite Tori persona on Posse, as she has the most memorable tracks and this little one, “Devils and Gods” might just be the best one of the album. I call this Tori’s ode to her childhood muse and idol Robert Plant. It’s sort of her very own personalized version of Led Zep’s “Battle of Evermore.” Short, haunting and brilliant, it appears like a lingering, lyrical apparition that inspires and gives one the chills.
Of Tori’s many new personalities, Pip is a big disappointment for me; “Teenage Hustling” and “Fat Slut” bring the album down and remind me of outtakes from Y Kant Tori Read. It’s hard to take hair metal riffs on a Tori song, which is most of what you hear on the backing tracks of tje Pip-fronted tracks. The only exception is the powerful anthem “Body and Soul.” I love Pip’s `hear me roar’ vocal as she sings “In my temple boy be warned violence doesn’t have a home now but ecstasy that’s as pure as a woman’s gold.” Using her seductive love instead of religion to cure the world’s evil is a very enticing idea that has resonance outside the confines of this amazing recording.
Posse ends with a bang, starting with the Italian Mandolin riffs on Pip’s Godfather-esque “Velvet Revolution.” Then there’s Isabel, my girl, singing “Is there a way out of this, if there is a way I don’t see it?” on her anti-Iraqi war song “Dark Side of the Sun.” Pip redeems herself with an eerie track “Smokey Joe” which would find a home inside of my favorite Tori album From The Choirgirl Hotel. She sings about being in an abusive relationship, and when Smokey Joe calls she’s afraid of not picking up and letting him in again. Tori sings the inevitable question that one in this unhealthy love affair asks, “I did not ask for this/ `Oh but Love yes you did.'”
There is so much in American Girl Posse that it can be exhausting, but the journey inside the many personas of Tori Amos is well worth it. There’s a bit too much filler on here, mostly by Pip, and some of her tracks would have fit well as her own EP or even as b-sides. Nonetheless, it’s nice to hear the voice of the chanteuse that won our hearts long ago. That voice of power and beauty brings me back to the day I finally met Tori, when I lived in New Orleans. I was on my way to work and I saw her doing a photo shoot in front of my favorite used record store, Magic Bus. I ran into my boss’s office and begged him for his camera. I went back to the street, got my nerve and asked Tori if I could take a picture. As I was about to snap a photo, she sweetly asked me—”Would you like to take a picture with me?” So now I have a cool photo of me and Tori Amos. What was she like, you ask? As I listen to Posse, I feel like she embodied all of these characters rolled into one, very eccentric and intense, but also a very kind soul.
Tori Amos – Boys for Pele
Tori Amos – From the Choirgirl Hotel
Tori Amos – Under the Pink