With Strange Little Girls, Tori Amos' cover-girl power takes center stage as she seizes classics and not-so-classics and makes them uniquely, strangely her own.
The album of remakes, some relatively faithful, others just plain weird, will be a slight disappointment to rabid fans hungering for new Tori tunes since 1999's To Venus and Back. But she infuses the covers, from artists as diverse as Lou Reed and Depeche Mode, with spiritual, typically Tori attitude that not only brings out previously undiscovered elements of the original songs, but also shows her respect for her inspirations and influences on a scale that makes you want to go out and sing karaoke with her.
Amos has always been a master of diverse covers, though her most impressive, including the Rolling Stones' "Angie," Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," are normally relegated to single B-sides, hard-to-find bootleg albums or concert performances. The goddess of sensual stream of consciousness and general strangeness has chosen songs like Lloyd Cole & the Commotions' "Rattlesnakes" and Slayer's "Raining Blood" that fit well into the twisted, whimsical Amos vocabulary of cornflake girls, raspberry swirls, happy phantoms and such.
Reed's "New Age" opens the album with a gorgeous, prophetic melancholy swell typical of the most gripping Amos album kickoffs, like "Pretty Good Year" and "Spark."
Amos plays bravely with the material so, naturally, some of these tunes bear little or no resemblance to the original. Take the cheesy "I'm Not in Love." Amos strips the tune of its smarm, replacing the gooey harmonies and saccharine singing with a sterile, droning soundscape, over which she delivers the lyrics in a serious, deadpan style. It's actually kind of scary, especially when she keeps repeating, "It hides a nasty stain still lying there."
But she's not all about draining emotions and spooking the joint. Amos' "Enjoy the Silence" abandons Depeche Mode's detached, hollow, synthed-up style and goes straight for the sweet simplicity. Amos sings it with a tenderness recalling her classic, "Little Earthquakes" and "Under the Pink" piano ballads.
"I Don't Like Mondays," originally recorded by the Boomtown Rats, is similarly soft and thoughtful. Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" is a desperate, repetitive swirl of guitars that finds Amos rocking out in a breathless psychedelic rage. The most radio-friendly fare is a cover of the Stranglers' "Strange Little Girl," which captures all the wicked catchiness of an original Tori classic, with a poppier sensibility.
And anyone who has a problem with Amos' occasionally baffling enunciation should be reassured upon listening to her eerie, spoken-word cover of Eminem's " '97 Bonnie and Clyde." She packs more pure drama into those few minutes than most musicians can muster in a lifetime. Makes you wonder if she should pursue an acting career.
The strangest, most experimental offering is Amos' shot at the Beatles' White Album masterpiece "Happiness is a Warm Gun." She eschews most of the lyrics to present a weirdly calming canvas of blips, techno effects and news sound bites that converge into an energetic, danceable anti-gun anthem. And she manages to keep all the chaos rooted in the basic structure of the song.
No matter how far out Amos takes these songs, she maintains each song's individual integrity. Her voice is a consistent marvel, smooth, confident, rippling effortlessly through the remakes, and making a particularly strong impression when subdued, even though her trilling primal screams are still present and accounted for.
While the album isn't as heady and redeeming as a dose of original Amos, it's a clever, appreciative exercise in reinvention.
Thank heaven for strange little girls.
Strange Little Girls (Atlantic)
Sun score: ** 1/2