At first glance, Tori Amos' "to venus and back" (Atlantic 83230-2P, arriving in stores today) seems a pretty strange trip. Although it's packaged as a double album, it's really more like two albums sharing the same space -- one an earthy, tuneful and often quite funky collection of new material, the other an energetic and sometimes quite revealing live album.
Taken individually, each disc is certainly strong enough to stand on its own, which raises the question: Why travel together? The answer Amos has been giving in interviews is that "to venus and back" was originally intended as a live album with a bonus disc of B-sides (songs she'd released on singles but never on album).
Initially, the plan was to toss in a couple of new tunes to sweeten the B-side disc, but once Amos started writing, the songs just kept coming. Before she knew it, she had a whole album of new stuff, and suddenly the live disc had become the bonus part of the package.
Well, that may explain the "how" of the album's evolution, but it really doesn't address the "why." To that end, let me propose a theory of my own: What "to venus and back" is really about is Amos' creative relationship with her band.
For years, the former Baltimorean was a solo artist in the most literal sense, recording with minimal back-up and touring with only her piano for accompaniment. That all changed in 1998, with "from the choirgirl hotel," Amos' first album with a band (and, coincidentally, the beginning of her obsession with lower-case album titles). As Amos' keyboard moved out of the spotlight, new elements of her music came to the fore.
This shift in Amos' approach was most evident during the "Plugged '98" tour (from which the performances on the live disc are culled). Amos effectively reinvented herself on this tour, not only changing the sound and shape of her older songs but altering the very thrust of her music.
Where once it was narrative and discursive, using the freedom of self-accompaniment to take dramatic liberties with time and pacing, now it's groove-oriented and expansive.
"Space Dog," for instance, is completely transformed, relying as much on Jon Evans' funk bass and Steve Caton's wah-wah guitar as on Amos' piano, while the concert version of "Cornflake Girl" is loose-limbed and rangy, with Amos riffing like Bruce Hornsby against drummer Matt Chamberlain's swirling pulse.
That shift in instrumental emphasis is taken even further in the studio half of "to venus and back."
"Bliss" may open the album with darkly brooding piano beneath Amos' throaty vocal, but once the song explodes into the chorus, it becomes clear that the piano vamp is being played as an equal to Chamberlain's drums.
If anything, it's Evans' growling bass and Caton's whining guitar that truly give the tune its color. Even more impressive (and distanced from her old sound) is the electro-inflected funk Amos works into "Juarez" and "Glory of the '80s."
It isn't just that the heavy groove these songs present emphasizes the ensemble over any individual player; because the rhythm beneath her is so strong, Amos' singing is cooler and more confident, drawing us in with a wink and a smile instead of trying to impress us with vocal theatrics.
Best of all, the songs themselves seem lighter, easier and more accessible than much of Amos' recent work.
Not only do we get a heaping serving of blissfully melodic numbers -- in particular "Concertina" and the Elton John-ish "1,000 Oceans" -- but even the songs that aren't trying to be obviously melodic serve up a surprising number of hooks (as with the moody-yet-catchy "Riot Poof").
Amos' "to venus and back" may seem an odd sort of package tour, but it's definitely a trip worth taking.
"to venus and back" (Atlantic 83230-2P)
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 9/21/99