CD Review: American Doll Posse – Tori Amos

Every music fan has at least one artist or band that speaks to them on a level unlike any other.  It is what distinguishes the casual listeners from the afficionados, the junkies, those who watch John Cusack in High Fidelity and feel as if he was a soulmate.

For me, there are a handful of such artists, but above them all is a petite bottle redhead named Tori Amos.  And for the last two years, Tori and I have been in somewhat of a fight.

One thing I have always loved about Tori is her ability to traverse new territory with each album.  The woman has never made the same album twice, which challenges and surprises me as a listener.  It has always been what had kept me captivated, spellbound, eagerly and greedily consuming each new collection of songs (often going without sleep during ‘leak season’ to ensure every MP3 made it onto my hard drive).  It is likely my love of a wide variety of genres that has kept me open even to her more recent directions;  I found Strange Little Girls to be a fun experiment, a wonderful way to kill a final album in a contract.  I grew over the course of a year to love Scarlet’s Walk so completely, so faithfully, that it became my number 3 album of her catalogue (behind From The Choigirl Hotel and Little Earthquakes, two albums I will argue are musical perfection).

But then, something happened to me, something that I had witnessed since the release of To Venus And Back in 1999, but had never understood before:

Tori let me down, in an enormous way.

Let’s rewind:  my standard Tori CD release day is usually thus:  buy CD, rush home, plunk in stereo, fangasm as it repeats at least five times.   Upon first listen, I will love half of the disc, like most of the rest, maybe dislike a song or two.

The Beekeeper, however, was a different story.  Due to lack of internet, I had only heard a few clips, and thus, the album was a blind listen.  I of course bought it – it was TORI – and skipped home on what I recall to be a Very Bad Day, preparing to be consoled by a woman who always taps straight into my soul.  Plunk CD in player, hit play….  Parasol?  Wow!  Sweet The Sting?  Ugh.  But hey, I always hate something…  The CD played on, and something very strange happened:  I tuned it right the hell out.  I didn’t even hear half of the songs properly.  Save maybe four tracks, the album was not engaging me in any way – emotionally, musically, lyrically – and I was confused.

“Maybe I’ll hit play again.”

It didn’t get better.  It still hasn’t.  Tori had officially made a Crappy Album.  Visions of Chantal Kreviazuk, Our Lady Peace, Dayna Manning, and so many others flooded my brain.  No.  I cannot lose Tori, too.  NO. The live shows were still a treat, but the album left a very nasty taste in my mouth, and a deep fear of what would come next.

Tori released her box set, including several new/unreleased tracks, and my fangirl rejoiced:  Tori still knew what a good song sounded like.  She had, after all, realized how orgasmic Walk To Dublin and Zero Point were.  Surely, somewhere inside, she knew a good album from a bad one.  But why, then?  Why TBK?  Okay, okay, she wanted to make a ‘soft’ album because of Tash…  I can think of soft albums that do not suck.  Tori, please meet Fumbling Towards Ecstasy.

The infamous image leaked of Tori with a bible in her hand, blood running down her leg, and inside, I felt a click.  The bitch is back.  I felt it coming.  I felt that excitement from 1999, awaiting TVAB.  The first clips leaked:  Big Wheel and Bouncing Off Clouds.  I recall distinctly posting on the forums, “If these are the most commercial tracks Epic could find on the album, this bodes well.”  And it has.

My faith, ladies and gentlemen, is restored.  It is more than restored, actually;  I am as excited as I was when I first heard From The Choirgirl Hotel, my favourite album ever to exist, the excitement of every new purchase as I collected the woman’s back catalogue.  Ashley said it in her review (the nitty gritty parts of which I have not yet read):  this album is solid, start to finish.  Even the weakest link (Secret Spell) is not as bad as 90% of TBK.  The album plays as one solid, ass-kicking disc.

It is already my third favourite Tori album of them all.  I say this not as a fangirl, but on the basis of me being in tears listening to half of the songs.  The woman has once again written material that can rip my heart out and cut me up, only to heal me again.

What makes this album such a brilliant work – and it is brilliant, and I urge any Tori fans who gave up on her over the last few years to try this one out – is how it blends the best elements of Choirgirl, Venus, and Scarlet into one body of work.  I can pick out pieces of songs that conjure the highlights of Choirgirl for me, and watch them slide into lyrics reminiscent of SW.  It’s gorgeous, it’s political, it’s playful and melancholy.  I am in love.

Before I hit the song by song, I’m going to say upfront that I am not going to approach the songs from the perspective of the ‘Doll’ behind them.  I view the Dolls as capturing elements of Tori herself, as pieces of herself across her life, and this facet interests me far more.

Track By Track:  American Doll Posse – Tori Amos

Yo George:  This song reminds me so much of Beauty Queen from Pele, in that it is a simple piano piece that sets the mood for the rest of the album and the journey ahead.  Tori declares her war in this one;  she names names, calls out Bush, and prepares the listener for a wild ride.

Big Wheel:  I have loved this track from moment one, and I’m glad Tori admitted she is the ‘doll’ behind this one;  she wouldn’t be able to fool anyone.  This song feels very tongue-in-cheek, but it makes a few clever jabs from my perspective.  For example, the line “turn that whiskey into rain” reminds me of the ‘water into wine’ image of the Bible.  This coupled with the ‘get off the cross – we need the wood’, the image of a big wheel turning (reminds me of the wheel of fortune), and mentions of being a possession…  screams a big ol’ fuck off at the religious right and those who would push the Christian/pro-life/anti-women nonsense through into law, and false messiahs/evangelists.  For some reason, I picture Scarlett from Gone With The Wind telling Rhett Butler to fuck off, because ‘baby I don’t need your cash/mama got it all in hand’.  A fun,playful, saucy song that says, “I’m a minster’s daughter, I know your game, I’m still a sexy bitch (MILF) and I’m coming for your asses, because I am not going to be kept barefoot in the kitchen”.

Bouncing Off Clouds:  What a switch – from twangy Lynyrd Skynyrd ‘down south in a bar’ vibe to Kate Bush circa Hounds of Love!  I love this song as well, for different reasons.  The piano drives this song like a mofo, and the lyrics remind me of Pink era and its rich metaphors and visuals.  Beautiful.  Lost love is a theme throughout, but the “You could stare all day at the sky, but that won’t bring her back…. I think fate is now waiting on us” seems a little darker…  I almost feel as if the woman in the song is the one leaving on a plane, despite her pleas to “make this easy”…  A woman on a search to change the course of history.

Teenage Hustling:  Oh god, how I LOVE this song.  This feels like the She’s Your Cocaine of this album:  it’s in your face, it’s angry, and it’s fierce in sound and message.  LOVE.  The lines about “skanking around with talentless trash” are this decade’s “you sign prince of darkness/try squire of dimness”.   This song feels like Tori subtly throwing back to the emotion of being rejected by Peabody, and her turning away to find something beyond classical music.  A thought occurred to me at work, and it almost fits, so I will relate it:  the line “I been working it since I’z 14” made me wonder… when exactly did T start playing the gay bars?  Looked it up, and it was when she was 13.  Thinking back to Tori’s upbringing and her grandmother’s use of religion to try and restrict Tori’s thoughts and feelings…  the “it’s going to save me from your dirty demons” for some reason makes me think of the gay bars as saving her through providing an outlet for music, and also, a new perspective on life.  In sum:  “Oh bitch please, I’ve been fighting this bullshit since I was a teen.  Here I come.”

Digital Ghost:  This song has been splitting opinion;  some find it to be a filler song, while others are raving that it’s one of the strongest on the disc.  I fall into the latter group.  This song feels like Tori singing a sad song straight to my heart, a plea to ‘make it through’ a desperate time.  From a Tori perspective, this song conjures up Tori’s losses and near-losses…  Kevyn, her mother, Michael…   Ghosts and those who almost were…  Now reduced to digital – 1’s and 0’s – she is haunted through photos, through dreams, through voices and recordings.  Memory fades, it corrodes, and you feel as if you are losing someone again.  There’s been rumblings also of someone having a black and white/binary perspective on life, hence the plea to “take a closer look”.  I also love that idea.

You Can Bring Your Dog:  This song is a fun one, another tongue-in-cheek number.  Several people have suggested the bringing of dogs refers to celebrities like Paris Hilton who collect pets like possessions, and I have to agree that I can totally see that.  This song feels like a caricature of what women are idealizing/aspiring to be these days:  Hilton-ites, instead of women standing up and fighting the status quo.

Mr. Bad Man:  What a strange song… like a twisted lounge song in a ominous jazz show.  Notice the use of ‘wolves’ in this song, and the line about ‘playing the wolf’ in the previous song… Nice connect!  That said, this feels like a moment of ‘oh hey…. so THAT’S how we’re going to end this awful situation’.

Fat Slut:  Tori+crazy electric guitar=hot sex.  The album turns here;  we’ve heard the war cries, laid the foundations of what is wrong in the world… and now, the dolls rebel.

Girl Disappearing:  Not being a Beatles fan, I didn’t catch it on my own, but once Ashley pointed out the similarities to She’s Leaving Home, I have to say I completely agree.  Despite the Beatles influence, it’s utterly beautiful, very Pink meets SW.  It feels like an answer to She’s Leaving Home – the story of what happened after the girl left home, how she sacrificed her true self, became a bombshell/blond shell, and let her inner self disappear…  Women turned against women as always, those who buy into that life/dream versus those who see the damage it does.  Beautiful.  Wow.  From the perspective of Tori connections…  in a way, does Tori feel like her last album was a moment of becoming a blond shell?

Secret Spell:  This song is my least favourite on the album, and it’s a shame, because lyrically, it’s got some fantastic lines.  Musically, it falls flat.  If my Tori theory holds from Girl Disappearing, this is one part of Tori speaking to another, saying, “hey, losing what made you Tori was not the plan.  You already sold yourself out before.  But you’ve still got it, so work it!”  Lyrically… “tears at 13” – Tori was rejected for the final time by Peabody.  “Sold a dream at 23” – Guess how old Tori was when she signed her contract and did YKTR?

Devils and Gods:  Another interlude… the guitar work is very interesting, strangely acoustic for a lead-in to such a rocking song…

Body And Soul:  The seduction of a song that invites someone to turn away from the ‘gods’ and nurture/love their demons by kneeling with a woman….  Very hot.  What a rocking song!  This is the Raspberry Swirl song for me – the naughty thoughts song, the sexy concept….  The very very beginning feels so NIN it’s strange to  behold.

Father’s Son:  If there is any song that blatantly a) says ‘hey Bush, I know your game’ and b) speaks directly about the war in Iraq, this is it.  This song haunts me, its lilting melody reminding me of SW in a large way, from the mentions of nature to the America vibe…  This almost feels like a death waltz…  Wow.

Programmable Soda:  This song is the Mr. Zebra of the album;  it lightens the mood, it’s got quirky strings and a humourous concept with a darker undertone.  Any song that uses ‘genital panic’ cracks my shit up.  It also amuses me because this album can be all over the musical map, as if each fan is playing with a programmable soda.  A drink for everyone, T?

Code Red:  If you didn’t chuckle at a song called Programmable Soda leading into a song whose title is a type of soda…  Get a better sense of humour 😉  Code Red, without question, is one of the best tracks on the entire album.  I get the twinges of Liquid Diamonds in the melody for this one, with shades of dark SLG-era piano.  Lyrically, it’s one of the more twisted tracks, throwing back stylistically to Choirgirl and Venus.  SO awesome.  This song can be taken on multiple levels, both political and personal, of loss and of something sacred being taken away by force.  If nothing else on this album says the bitch still has it, this track declares it so.

Roosterspur Bridge:  I hope this one evolves into a solo piano track on tour, because the radio performance was so gorgeous.  The studio isn’t bad, but I think the solo just adds to the broken heart nature of the lyrics.  This song almost feels like a sister song to Strange to me;  it has that SW/road trip vibe, with similar themes.  Gorgeous.

Beauty of Speed:  Carbon 2007.  That’s the quickest way I can capture this song in words.  From the erratic drums and melody, to the lyrics.  I could almost take this song to be Carbon’s perspective as she makes her way down the hills.  Recall Tori’s notes/description that went with Carbon – Carbon describes what she sees as changing quickly, the colours changing…  No wonder, given that Carbon is my second favourite T song, that this is one of my ADP favourites.  Solo, studio, anyway I can have it.

Almost Rosey:  I started off sort of indifferent to this song lyrically, only to find it become one of the highlights of the album for me.  Perhaps it’s the fact that lyrically, it’s telling the story of my life at the moment.  This one, like Roosterspur, is stronger solo, and will hopefully be performed that way throughout the tour.  Lyrically, it deals with the idea of pretending that things are better than they are, pretending that people care more than they actually do…  wearing masks…  Something Tori certainly knows a little about.  Again, I know there are characters in Tori’s concept, but I feel Tori seeping into nearly every track.  It’s the personal angles that are making the music stronger;  you can hear, dare I say it, emotion in this album!

Velvet Revolution:  This song from moment one has reminded me of Pink Floyd’s The Trial, from the fantastic album The Wall.  Go take a listen yourself, and consider the notion of a trial for America…  Consider also the track that follows, a title very similar to that of a Pink Floyd album.  If Tori’s been listening to Floyd…  no wonder this album is so much better than TBK

Dark Side Of The Sun:  Tori, thank you for having the sense to end the song before it drags, because it is one I really love, and a fantastic closer to the main album body.  Heartbreaking, it brings the album full circle to the realization that as much as Tori and the posse want things to change, their war, if you will, hasn’t stopped the world from turning as it has for years now…  The battle is not won, but it’s not over.  Consider also what the dark side of the sun actually can be thought of as…  and it brings you back to Floyd.  Scan the lyrics for that album, especially the last 4 tracks.  There’s definite shades of DSOTM on ADP.
Posse Bonus:  Bwahahahahaha!  How does a quirky woman break up the main album from rammed-on b-sides?  With an improv silly song declaring that “this is your posse bonus/because I like you”.  This is as funny as the “Back that ass up” improv for Marys of the Sea.

Smokey Joe:  HOLY SHIT.  This song is creepy, in that ‘gives you nightmares’ way.  In that sense, it hits me in the gut in the same way that Peeping Tommi does.  I love the vocal layering to this one;  it feels like an angel and a devil arguing on someone’s shoulders.  Try listening to it on headphones in the dark.  CHILLS.

Dragon:  I love the instrumental work on this one…  Tinges of pan flute-equse noise…  Plaintive harmonies play off of the lyrics so well.  This reminds me of a sister song to Body and Soul;  this one invites someone to stay, insisting his dragon needs slaying, while Body and Soul speaks of loving someone’s demons.  It’s growing on me fast, this one…


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