CD Review: Abnormally Attracted To Sin – Tori Amos

With the release of Abnormally Attracted to Sin, Tori Amos’ 10th album, fans and critics fall into two loose camps, dependent on their impression of her previous outing, American Doll Posse:

1) Can she ever redeem herself to the good ol’ days of Boys For Pele/From The Choirgirl Hotel/Under The Pink/etc.?

2) Was The Beekeeper truly a fluke of weak songwriting and overproduction, or was American Doll Posse a lucky and unexpected success?

I personally lie in that latter camp, having embraced American Doll Posse, Pip and all, so wholeheartedly that it’s currently sitting comfortably in my number two slot in the realm of Tori’s discography, behind my long-time love From The Choirgirl Hotel. While I was somewhat more open and forgiving with The Beekeeper than many fans (it was certainly an album that brought about a mass exodus from the fanbase), it was still an incredibly weak album overall. With American Doll Posse, my faith was renewed in Tori’s ability to deliver a song more rocking than a case of downers dissolved in Ovaltine.

My first impressions of Abnormally Attracted to Sin weren’t exactly warm. Welcome To England seemed like a slightly more rocking Sleeps With Butterflies; 500 Miles was an utter piece of wretch that somehow topped out the fail quotient of Secret Spell (a song I not-so-affectionately refer to as Secret Suck); and Fire To Your Plain seemed passable. I was then hit with Ophelia, Curtain Call and Flavor, and promptly decided that this was not promising, given that only Curtain Call truly excited me.

This all explains why I am so relieved to report that upon complete and – this is key – repeated listens, the album holds up well overall, although it suffers similar production issues to those fans have been griping over since The Beekeeper as well as an inability for Amos to edit an album down to its strongest tracks. Granted, this may be partially due to the diminished popularity of CD singles, a format Amos enthusiastically contributed numerous B-Sides to over the years; I always feel the reason her albums stretch so long now is because she wants to give her fans every song she can, as she has always done. The trouble is, weaker tracks distract from the gems, and diminishes her concept for the album, killing its effectiveness. Somewhere in here lies an album born of the best elements from To Venus And Back, American Doll Posse and The Beekeeper, but you have to dig for it. The trouble is, disgruntled and more casual fans simply won’t bother doing so.

Thinking back to early interviews and comments by Tori with regards to the direction for The Beekeeper, I have to say that this album is a lot closer to what I and likely other fans expected to hear upon that album’s arrival; I’d anticipated something with an ‘earthy’ feel, something dark but sensual, what with all the talk of organs and pianos mating. Instead, we were treated to The Sleepkeeper and the Hooked On Valium tour. Lyrically, it pales compared to her first five albums in most places, but Tori can still craft a gorgeous song or string together a metaphor that is both potent and perplexing.

Is it as good as American Doll Posse? In an edited form, perhaps – but I found American Doll Posse needed scant few edits. Overall, I’m inclined to say this: if the more adult contemporary tracks of Scarlet’s Walk didn’t make you hand in your fan card immediately and you’ve found something to enjoy on each album since (even the dreaded disc The Beekeeper), then this album will offer you something to enjoy, particularly if To Venus and Back blended with the Southern sass of Boys For Pele‘s vocals sounds tasty to you; if A Sorta Fairytale and Bouncing Off Clouds made you homicidal, you’re probably going to walk away fairly unsatisfied here. That said, Tori Amos is never going to make another album identical to one before, so if you’re holding your breath for an album full of harpsichords and guttural wails, it’s not coming, ever. Tori’s made it pretty clear in her choice to make a different sort of album each and every time. I may not love everything she does, but I respect that she changes things up each and every time – for better or for worse.

That all said and done, let’s give this a spin and do the track-by-track:

Give: This opener wins my approval, keeping Tori’s track 1 record with me intact (I have never disliked any track 1 on an album of hers, ever, although Yo George isn’t high on my charts). It reeks of the sultry edge of the Pip persona, tapping the eerie feel and simmering rage of Smokey Joe. The melody sounds like the result of TVAB and BFP mating and allowing SW to raise their offspring and teach it to speak. Despite being simplistic, the lyrics work for the message, and the more ‘live’ sound to the vocals provides the perfect edge to a brooding melody. 5/5

Welcome To England: This song has been one that has grown on me, although it’s still not top-notch. The main detraction from this piece is the same issue I have with Crazy: the lyrics are edgy, but the bland music (especially during the choruses) and pacing of delivery just don’t support them. The guitar is also overkilled, as ‘Mac’ is brought too much to the front in the mix. 4/5

Strong Black Vine: Choirgirl-era Tori, is that you hiding in there? Because you sure sound like you’re not from his tribe (and methinks this is your rallying cry to others to become ‘recovering Christians’). I’m not sure what surprises me most: the powerful vocals reminiscent of Professional Widow, the bold musical accompaniment, or the just cryptic enough to feel ‘Tori’ lyrics. This song feels, in some senses, like it could fall as a prequel to Witness – her attempting to save someone, only to be left condemned and thinking, ‘Wait – I thought I had a witness. Didn’t you hear me?’. 5/5

Flavor: This track is suffering from two major issues: 1) it reeks of a stripped-down Give crossed with Lust’s live incarnation (blech) and 2) the lyrics are incredibly dull and repetitive. Was Tori staring at LOLCats with Tash all day? ‘I has a flavor!’ Coupled with Ophelia’s use of the word flavor, it’s overkill and makes me want to fetch Tori a thesaurus. In general, it recycles ideas we’ve heard numerous times from Tori already. Makes for great background/cleaning music. 3.5/5

Not Dying Today: This cannot be coincidence. Tori simply must realize she’s almost blatantly ripped off the melody of her own track Dolphin Song for this one. It’s as if she said, ‘Fine. You don’t like ‘Smoo like doooophin’? Fine, try these lyrics instead!’. My answer: MUCH better, Tori. Such a fun, upbeat track on an album that mostly broods and simmers in rage and rejection of societal control and mind games, it feels jarring and loosely on theme. That said, it’s a favourite of mine on this disc and I cannot stress how much I want to hear this live, if only to hear the spoken word bit. 5/5

Maybe California: This reeks of adult contemporary, and yet, I’m utterly in love with it. It may be due to personal experiences that leave me completely understanding the feeling of staring down the cliffs of California and being too tired to go on. It may also be the strange brainwave that leads me to hypothesize this: Maybe California is a continuation/relative of Mrs Jesus. While the lyrics state “Hey Mrs, see – please don’t jump”, when has Tori not felt free to play on sounds? What a strange mirror it would be to see Tori/Scarlet move from being in despair and unable to understand how to live in the world with so much hate and use of religion as justification for violence (a concept close to this album’s heart) to being ‘saved’ by the wisdom of Mrs. Jesus as she carries her unborn child… to Scarlet on the cliffs of California, urging a fellow ‘mother’ to remain strong for her ‘children’? Whether it is a direct mirror of despairing mother to a nameless woman later met by a wiser Scarlet, or Scarlet speaking straight to Mrs Jesus (who despairs at those going astray from the real essence of his teachings), it’s fascinating me to consider. Add in also the lyrical connections (Mrs. Jesus – “Lifelines and suicide crimes, he found me in a state…”; references to stars, angels/heaven in both pieces) and it’s food for thought. 5/5 (really!)

Curtain Call: This song is the most personal of the album, for anyone with a decent knowledge of Tori’s career will tell you it’s painfully autobiographical, depicting Tori’s trajectory through the music business. This ground was well covered in Tori’s book Piece By Piece, but here, it’s moving and corn mother free. I’m going to go right ahead and declare this the strongest track of the album, if only for its earnest nature and the lyrics that catch my eye as clever nods (references to China’s wall, looking-glass and ‘shade’ – concepts in Tori’s songs; the fact that music is ‘spiritual’ for her). 5/5

Fire To Your Plain: My first reaction to this track was a ‘this is alright’, but the combination of the visualette and allowing it to grow on me is moving it upward. This song would be strong single material, if only because it doesn’t betray Tori’s usual style of songwriting like, say, Sleeps With Butterflies, but it’s more accessible than, say, Professional Widow. I have a terrible feeling this will blow live, in that Tori will perform it too slow. 4/5

Police Me: This is such a strange and quirky piece, I can’t help but enjoy it. It’s not her strongest outing, lyrically or musically, but it’s got that little sass of My Posse Can Do. I think it’s not very effective for her concept, even if the notion of being policed seems bang on. This song would have made a fantastic b-side. 4/5

That Guy: Oh, god. This song is so terrible, I’ve only finished listening to it once (and I’ve played everything else 3 times or more). Boringm tedious music coupled with plodding, over the top lounge delivery kills what are actually lyrics containing a few decent lines (stress on few). The endless use of ‘That guy…’ and the ‘will we break-up’ makes this sound like bad emo teen poetry though. This will be a torture session live far worse than Jamaica (fucking) Inn. 2/5 out of pity.

Abnormally Attracted To Sin: The title track of the album delivers some of the more cryptic and visual image-centred lyrics of the album, and this coupled with the sultry electronic feel of the piece make it incredibly strong. However, for some reason, I don’t quite love it yet. I have a feeling it will be a grower. 4.5/5

500 Miles: UGH. Dear God, it’s like Secret Spell and Ireland (without the funny parts about Saabs and amusing sha-na-na-nas) rammed into one epic failure of a song sent from hell to make my ears bleed. Seriously Tori, why not just ram on some gospel singers singing about a sweet sting and add in a slow bridge featuring ‘looooooooook I’m standing naked before you’ repeated twenty times and complete this ultimate suckfest you apparently aimed for? The only people ever allowed to sing 500 Miles in a song again are the Proclaimers. STAB. 1/5 strictly because it’s Tori Amos and therefore still better than the Jonas Brothers by default.

Mary Jane: This song wins at loungey cabaret where That Guy fails, and is a clever little song about marijuana. How can I not adore it? And to boot, the lyrics definitely tip their hat to Reefer Madness and its related hysteria, which makes it on topic. This one probably would have been a b-side in the Atlantic records era rich in CD singles, which makes it look a little weak here. 4/5

Starling: I like this track the more I hear it. It conjures up the creepy sort of feeling drifting about the Choirgirl-era tracks like Liquid Diamonds and Black-Dove, and the percussion noises I describe as ‘horses trotting’ just give me shivers. The lyrics themselves remind me of Choirgirl/Venus Tori, which pushes this song right up the list of tracks towards the number one slot. Tori, take a memo: more of this, less 500 Miles. Love, your fan. 4.5/5

Fast Horse: When you load a song titled after the name of a bird that can mimic sounds from its surroundings, a song with horse-type noises, into the playlist before a song called Fast Horse, I giggle. It’s even more amusing in light of Black-Dove (bird in title) having a lyric about “I have to get to Texas” and Fast Horse referencing Tennessee. The energy and music remind me of Code Red (rocking and angry) but the southern feel to the lyrics and delivery conjure up SW and Pele a la Little Amsterdam. Nice. I can’t say I find it perfectly on theme, but it’s a strong song that merges old style and new. 4/10

Ophelia: The sentiment of this song is moving, and feels like a letter to the numerous troubled women in Tori’s fanbase. I’m a huge fan of Hamlet and also the books Reviving Ophelia and Ophelia Speaks, so it connects with me on a level. I just find the melody to not stand out from other tracks on the album, and that damn use of ‘flavor’ crops up again. It may grow on me more over time (perhaps as I skip Flavor and avoid that repetition). 4/5

Lady In Blue: This song creeps along, a jazzy cabaret number with mysterious haunting lyrics and a building up at the end that is dynamite, reminiscent of live versions of songs like Waitress. That said, it feels a little too slow to get going, and could stand a trim of 45 seconds maybe to make a better song. This song is probably one that is closest to ‘classic Tori’ (I’m thinking UTP-era) and will likely be the one traditional fans latch onto to. Unfortunately, played solo live, it will be lacking its strongest element (the bass and build-up) and will therefore be a letdown. But maybe Tori will surprise me. 4.5/5

Overall:  80/100.  With trimming, this could be 90/100.  Tori, please edit and release b-side digital eps.  Your fans and wallet will thank you.

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