Nobody ever accused Tori Amos of being shallow.
If anything, the opposite has been true -- her albums have run so deep that some listeners have been left feeling as if they were in over their heads. Between the intensity of her performances and the complexity of her metaphors, the music on her last two albums, "Under the Pink" and "Boys for Pele," left as many listeners overwhelmed as elated.
That situation should change with her fifth and newest album, "From the Choirgirl Hotel" (Atlantic 83095). Placing synths beside her trusty piano and working with her first full-time band since the days of "Y Kant Tori Read," the songs Amos finds at the "Choirgirl Hotel" are perhaps the catchiest and most accessible of her career. She's never sounded more ready for prime time than she does here.
And, yet, as easy and approachable as the album may seem, Amos still spends most of her time down in the deep end. It's just that this time around, she makes it easier for the uninitiated to snorkel on alongside her.
Credit the changes in her sound for most of that shift. Part of what made Amos' earlier work seem so hermetic was the hothouse-flower atmosphere evoked by her piano-and-voice arrangements. By contrast, the "Choirgirl" songs sound more like conventional rock, with sizzling synths, growling guitars and driving, two-fisted drumming.
Not only is the music more listener-friendly, but the broader instrumental palette seems to have inspired a more panoramic sense of melody in Amos. These are big, broad-stroke songs, with sweeping choruses and dramatically detailed verses, songs that seduce the listener with the sheer scale and opulence of their sound.
That much is made clear in the album's opening moments. "Spark" starts off like some half-remembered dream, with dull-chiming synth ticking off arpeggiated chords as treated guitar chords flash in the background like reflections in a dark room. Despite the graceful pulse of Matt Chamberlain's jazz-waltz drumming, the music's feel is awkward and groggy, and that sucks us into the first line: "She's addicted to nicotine patches."
From there, the song's various currents sweep the listener along, through the dramatic swirl of the bridge -- a nice Elton John touch in the way the piano restates the melody -- until the final, eddying chorus brings us back to the beginning. It's such a giddily enjoyable ride, you almost don't notice how easily the lyrics sink in.
Amazingly, Amos repeats that trick throughout the album, yet without reiterating any melodic ideas or stylistic devices. So the dark, itchy "Cruel" slithers along with its creep-show synths and throbbing, jungle percussion like some sort of swap-rock variant on Nine Inch Nails, while "Playboy Mommy" staggers on to the sound of synthesized saxophones, its broadly swinging beat a parody of nightclub sophistication. Then there's "She's Your Cocaine," which runs through a veritable catalog of Beatle-isms, from its stomping "White Album" verse to its semi-psychedelic, "Magical Mystery Tour" bridge.
Although it's exciting to watch Amos take full advantage of this new musical paint box, the album's greatest strengths stem not from the wealth of musical effects, but from the power of the playing. This is a band in the truest sense of the word, and when Amos connects with her band mates -- as in "Liquid Diamonds," where her piano feeds off Chamberlain's drums as Jimmy Page played off John Bonham in Led Zeppelin -- the effect is breathtaking.
But the best sense of how powerful a performer Amos has become is found not in rockers like "Raspberry Swirl" or "Iiiee" but in her ballads. Between the gentle, string-soaked phrases of "Jackie's Strength" and the slow, bittersweet cadences of "Northern Lad," Amos' sense of melody is so acute that she barely needs words to convey the emotions she addresses. It gets her ideas across so succinctly that there's no need to worry about how deep she's going -- we're right there beside her, swimming like fishes.
What: "From the Choirgirl Hotel" (Atlantic)
Sun score: 1/2
Sundial: To hear excerpts from Tori Amos' new release, "From the Choirgirl Hotel," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6118. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2A.
Pub Date: 5/06/98