Welcome to this Special Edition Review, the first in (hopefully) a series, wherein I settle in with my compadre and fellow music blogger 2020k to attack an album from our unique perspectives. Mine: the music fan with a lot of snark and fangirling up her sleeve. His: the music fan tempered by being a musician/engineer/guru of production.
For the readers, you gain a well-rounded review that spans the technical to the emotional elements; for us, we get to make inside jokes and have a laugh at each other’s reactions. Everyone wins at OTM! Our first victim – er, review: Tori Amos, an artist we have very different perspectives on, given our fandom reigns (mine: 14 years and counting; 2020k came in during The Beekeeper).
For clarity: 2020k will be delivered in this colour; Amber’s commentary will be in this colour. Why do I feel like OTM just became a Danielewski novel?
Ready, Player One!
Alright, RJ, here we go on the glorious adventure the smooth like dolphin faeries have begat us: the two-pronged review of Tori Amos’ Gold Dust. Before we begin, let’s recap my relationship with Tori Amos as a means of providing OTM’s context:
- 1998: I discover Tori via the video for “Spark”, which is still my favourite of all of her videos and songs, right down to the 6.58 in my tattoo. Obsession begins.
- 1999: First live show (I sadly found Tori a month after the damn Plugged Tour).
- 2001: Tour stalking habit forms. Although unimpressed with the Eminem cover because it means the bastard makes money off my purchase, I am gleeful about the deliberately obtuse and wacky interview Tori gives Spin out of spite.
- 2002: I run up a huge tab on the credit line to see many, many shows. I regret nothing.
- 2005: The Beekeeper happens. Many fans abandon ship. I am disappointed, but not enough to skip out on seeing seven more shows. I love “Hoochie Woman”. Again, I regret nothing. I discover a song worse than “China”: “Jamaica (Fucking) Inn”.
- 2007: American Doll Posse happens and I am reassured that somewhere inside Tori, she remembers how to rock the fuck out, complete with pleather pants and a knife. The Beekeeper is surely a blip, I conclude, one to be blamed on a hella ton of Valium consumed during a traumatic time in Tori’s life. “Secret Spell” tries to suck harder than “Jamaica (Fucking) Inn”. It almost succeeds.
- 2009: Abnormally Attracted To Sin happens, and it is hardly the “return to old album sounds” and “what the fans have been asking for” album Tori pretends it is. Most of it fades from my memory in six months. “500 Miles” manages to suck as hard as “Jamaica (Fucking) Inn”. And yes, that’s the name of that song now.
- Also 2009: Midwinter Graces happens and I officially get very, very angry with Tori for writing the song Kate Bush sings of in “Experiment IV” (the one that can kill people). It’s called “Emmanuel”.
- 2011: Tori announces an album of classical music with her lyrics. This should be a dream come true. I have been burned too often to get my hopes up, which is a good thing when the entire album, save two tracks, is a godawful disappointment and Amos Family Musical shit show. The tour, however, is grand, although it marks the first tour since 1999 where I have attended only one show.
Before listening to this album, I decided to spin the Fade To Red DVD collection of her music videos. I think a part of me was trying to remember, after years of disappointments, why I love(d) Tori. The visceral reaction in my core to those old songs is precisely my problem with Tori’s more recent output: aside from ADP, nothing grabs me anymore in that same way. Everything feels far more superficial or removed, and Tori’s lack of connection with the material shows in the final product.
As you can see, I came into Gold Dust expecting things to, well, suck. Tori plus orchestra should again be a dream come true; enough of us fans have clamored for it for eons. However, given her track record from 2005 onward, it’s hard for me to believe that Tori will deliver. Then again, I thought, “Well, this is a reworking of old songs. Maybe this will be great like the string quartet on the 2011 tour.” No new lyrics to screw up and all that.
2020k, I truly hope you’re ready to analyze all frequencies on this orange-knickered monstrosity, because I’d like to have a more technical and intelligent way of explaining why I wish Tori would just bloody well retire and only do live shows like Cher.
Let’s pluck the dead petals off this daisy, shall we?
On Tori Amos’ second venture with Deutsche Grammophon (the first being a 21st century song-cycle called Night of Hunters of which you can read 2020k’s thoughts and feelings from via their review), the always thought provoking pianist and singer-songwriter decided to rummage through her back catalog as a means to pull fourteen songs from it and rearrange them into exuberant orchestral demonstrations as a means to breathe fresh air into them. In fact, the disc is quite heavy on Little Earthquakes material and throughout promotional interviews for the record, Tori stated that through conversations with her audience and other individuals she’s met throughout her life, they’ve inspired a change in direction of which Amos sees her own discography.
One of the most talked about changes comes from the track “Winter,” stemming from Amos’ 1991 debut. What was once thought of as a dialog between herself and her father is now seen through the eyes of her 12 year old daughter Tash. Through the new composition for the Gold Dust disc, it’s quite difficult to distinguish too many new additions and changes in fluidity, which is when this particular release seems to positively proliferate.
In fact, when Tori and her band of musicians and engineers get it right, they strike gold and it’s quite clear with the aforementioned track and the title track. Not only are the original intent and integrity of these two songs recognizable, they’re given a sonic facelift by noticeably producing a mix that brings out the best in The Metropole Orkest and combines the songwriter’s lyrics and vocals with more traditional mixing in regards to taking on a project that’s as hands on, as musician-crafted as Gold Dust. As a whole, the disc is mixed in an extremely conservative and modest fashion, which surprisingly doesn’t hinder the originally Alternative Rock compositions’ emotional power in the slightest bit. In ways, it enhances it.
On the topic of tracklisting choices, there are songs missing from this collection that I consider glaring omissions: “Girl”; “Honey”; “Sugar”; “Father Lucifer”; “Spark”; “Juarez”; “Bliss”; “Carbon”; “Original Sinsuality”; “Curtain Call”… I could go on. I don’t understand several of her choices, particularly in light of how poorly they come across on this album. If this is meant to be a personal narrative, then why are songs like “Spark” missing – songs so personal, Tori avoids them live? Why is “Programmable Soda” part of the narrative?
Tori, I call bullshit: you chose the songs that you wanted to play around with or songs you knew you’d be lynched for omitting. When said songs coincided with deep personal meaning, results were positive. But there’s a lot of vocal “going through the motions” here. That said, let’s dig into a track-by-track approach, with interjections from the wise 2020k to explain the more technical aspects of what I’m hearing (or not hearing).
Flavor: Of all the songs to choose from AATS, this one? The one that shares lyrics with later track “Ophelia”? The one that most fans don’t care for? I would have thought that “Curtain Call” would be a more natural choice from this album, both in terms of lyrical content (Amos has said she chose songs to tell her story throughout her whole career) and how delicious it would sound with some bombastic orchestral work.
That said, I will say this: this version is better than the original, unlike most of the tracks on the collection. Then again, it’s not hard to improve on dreck. It’s a pretty new tune, so the needlessly redone vocals sound pretty much the same.
Yes, Anastasia: This was the very first song every fan surely thought of when considering possible track choices for an orchestral album. It should have been glorious: it comes pre-packaged with existing string arrangements, after all. It’s one of her more epic numbers. Needless to say, it’s heartbreaking that it’s such a goddamn disappointment.
Yeah, yeah Tori: mind like a goldfish, blah blah. As bitter as I am that I will never hear the entire song live because even though you’ll tape the tedious lyrics to tunes like “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” to the piano to get the lyrics right, you won’t give “Anastasia” her due, you were in a studio. With glasses (hot, by the way). You had sheet music and lyrics handy. I vehemently call bullshit.
This is also the first track where Tori’s aging voice is apparent, as high notes are dropped and lower registers almost drone like a robot. If I remember it correctly, the UTP masters are lost/damaged, but if you’re going to re-record a classic song, don’t choose the ones you can’t sing anymore. While the strings are gorgeous, Tori’s end of things and the neutering of the track ruins it.
Jackie’s Strength: This was so close to being perfect. Tori, let’s talk: in recent tours, you’d finally stopped that stupid goddamn vocal echo crap on “Concertina” and “Jackie”. The annoying parrot effect has always grated. This new version of the vocals is more melancholy and somber, yet very evocative. The strings are just gorgeous: the track delivers the sort of artistic crafting I expected for the whole project. But then you just had to bring back the stupid parrot thing, didn’t you? Look, honey: this ain’t “Jamaica (Fucking) Inn” and there aren’t any pirates coming. No need to blend with them.
I’m praying for “Jackie’s Strength” myself – to get through this album without ripping my hair out. Goddess knows I don’t want to end up in a 2007-era wig.
Cloud On My Tongue: Like “Jackie”, this one comes so close to being fabulous. The strings are bloody bad-ass on this track, adding stunning flourishes to an iconic Tori tune. I’m even okay with Tori’s aging voice and the differences in pitch and octaves and all the other technical crap RJ will explain. What ruins this one, you ask? The zombie-esque emotionless singing of “Circles and circles and circles again”. I didn’t think it was possible for Tori to create something as wretched as the Tales version of “Mary” but Tori loves to prove me wrong! Did she lock up her chef and band again and demand they chant for her?
I apologize; I’m ranting. RJ, tell me about what, precisely, Tori’s done on this album from the technical end of things.
Compression mostly stays off of the strings unless set to a small ratio which brings out volume control on some of the more striking moments. Imagine if “Yes, Anastasia” allowed every aspect of its louder builds to remain unaltered by volume. Frequencies would fight in all the wrong fashions and the balance of the mix during the piano/vocal lines would be thrown levelly askew. It’s only the main vocal lines that seem to be heard in a way that are obviously overdubbed and In fact, while the lead vocals throughout the record are sometimes a bit obviously pushed to the front, they’re not to the point of where each breath is cutting like a knife through the entirety of the foreground of the songs.
There are moments when the compression is simply too much and can cause damage to the core ambition that emotionally drives the songs. For example, during “Cloud On my Tongue” where the Under the Pink version would sound superior to the revamp, based on the vocal compression technique, and some other songs suffer the same fate.
Natural and outboard reverberation vastly help with the song’s dynamics and provide a slight push toward an overall natural feel, but it’s the moments where Tori Amos’ vocals are doubled in a chorus-like fashion that makes or breaks some defining moments during Gold Dust. The doubled vocals are the biggest stand out on the album as they provide some of the only moments of contemporary experimentation. Where “Cloud on my Tongue” lacks because of the previous mention of higher vocal compression, it thrives on the doubles where Amos laments the “circles and circles and circles again.” It’s a creative departing one could look at as deviating too far off to the left field, but it widens the stereo mix and creates a mini-circular spectrum through a headphone listen.
Where the doubling works best is on the album’s lead single, “Flavor” where the entirety of the chorus strays far from the accustomed classical vision and builds from a beautifully delayed vocal into a dense landscape that blends and harmonizes with several aspects of Tori’s own piano playing and the orchestral immersion.
Sometimes, it’s distracting. The beginning lines of “Jackie’s Strength” are mixed in a way to focus on mid-range vocals, giving Tori an old radio sounding vibe which could be taken as an extended audio narrative of the decade of which the song was written in regards to, but lacks emotional impact. Though, “Jackie..” is mostly transformed into a live-esque piano piece and is one of the pieces that sounds the most whole.
We mention live because Gold Dust would sound better in a live realm, which explains the small orchestra tours the veteran has embarked on since the release of Night of Hunters. In fact, if this record was conceptualized and recording during the tour it would have made an even stronger impact as a solid work of art, showing the natural live progression Tori Amos has evolved from since those beginning Live at Montreaux recordings, through To Venus and Back, the bootlegs, and now. For future proof, “Silent All These Years” gives listeners a great surprise in that it sticks more toward the gorgeously altered live version of the song the singer has been taking around the world for years, extra piano melody and altered, longer pauses between the song’s measurable structure.
See? This is why I love RJ. He provides the fancier language to my consistent complaints about Tori Amos as her own producer. More on that later; for now, let’s wrap up that track-by-track examination.
Precious Things: Again, you can really sense the changes in her voice on this one, more so than when she does it live these days. The loss of belting and sustained notes is apparent on this, especially at the “with their nine inch nails” part. Also, there is zero oomph to the “so you can make me cum” line, which just makes me want to “wah, wah, waaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” this version. It seems the only way she can tap that old angry passion these days is to have a rocking band backing her up (see 2007 tour). The growl peters out rather quickly.
While worthy as an alternate version of what is inarguably one of her trademark tracks, it ultimately doesn’t hold a candle to the original version or even live versions of old. The live-esque “wash away” outro is a nice addition, but it’s just not enough to elevate the recording.
Gold Dust: This is the first song on the entire album that I have absolutely no complaints about, and I’m sure the Corn Mother is pleased to hear how I’ve integrated this into my body map of sonic pornography. Not only a great choice in terms of lyrical narrative and foundation for orchestral reworking, the strings are used perfectly here. Even that cymbal crash as we hit the first verse is just perfect. Well played, Tori.
Star Of Wonder: What the hell, Tori? Why? Why are you wasting a goddamn track spot and studio time with an orchestra to rework this drivel? Do you not recall fan reactions to this? Let’s put it this way: mainstream media outlets liked this album. People who like Bieber liked this album. I couldn’t even be arsed to review it beyond Tweets. As a Wiccan, the whole album was wretched and such a letdown.
Great, the orchestra sounds nice. Good job, orchestra. The song itself still blows. You could have done a track from The Beekeeper here (“Original Sinsuality”; “Toast”; “Parasol”). You could have done a TVAB track (“Bliss”; “Juarez” with creepy dark strings). Hell, “Cruel” rocked with a quartet. You suck, Tori. Seriously.
Winter: This is a shining example of what this album could and should have been, and 2020k has explained why this recording is so loaded with emotion. Love this. Love the emotion, love the strings. Live versions of “Winter” rip my heart out, and this reworking demonstrates why. It’s pretty amazing that a song from 1992 can still evoke so much heart from her, even if for different reasons now.
Flying Dutchman: This is another song like “Anastasia” that I simply expected to be on this album. It was such a gimme, given its existing strings and how much of a fan favourite it is. The orchestra is used to great effect on this one, with the strings in particular adding just the right amount of punch in places. What brings this one down is, again, Tori’s voice changing and her choices in adjusting notes and so on. The outro vocal layers aren’t quite as good as the original, but the track’s an alright contribution as an alternate take.
Let’s just say it: hey Tori, when you freeze your face with plastic surgery? It affects the way your mouth moves. It’s probably impacting your voice as much as age. Plus, you don’t look younger – just puffy and weird. A once glamorous bitch is in need here.
Programmable Soda: What a bloody random choice! Hey Tori, you didn’t think “Way Down” deserved some strings? That said, this little blip on the album is highly satisfying. It’s silly, sassy and fun, and improves on the original. Plus, who else could sing “genital panic” and make it awesome?
Snow Cherries From France: This is one of those songs that people drooled over for the title alone for years and when it finally happened, I was utterly underwhelmed. I like the song, but it’s not a fave. This version, I have to say, actually affects me. I prefer it to the original. There’s so much more emotion here. I’m guessing the production is less “smoothy smooth polish polish” than the original, being as it came from the irritating Tales Of A Librarian collection. Whatever it is, Tori’s tapped into the heart of the song far better this time around.
Marianne: One of the best surprises of the entire album, no question. It’s important to note that “Marianne” was composed off the top of Tori’s head – they had to transcribe the song back from the recording that Mark Hawley luckily snagged of it. I think that the challenge of having to transcribe it into a full orchestral arrangement and Tori herself having to get the song spot on for their benefit brought her back to that core place from which the song sprung. The vocals are gut-wrenching and earnest in their sorrow and the strings amplify that pain and lamentation. Wow.
Silent All These Years: Another gimme, given its iconic status in the Tori Amos discography. This song has a very special place in my heart and after so many misses earlier in the album, I was almost afraid to listen to this one. Thankfully, it’s as gorgeous as “Marianne”. While the higher register bridge is gone, the common live incarnation with its delicate “if I’m stripped of my beauty” is here and honestly? I prefer it. The first time I heard the song, she did the dropped bridge and I wept ridiculous amounts. It’s nice to have a crisp, studio version of it to play over and over. The finishing notes of the orchestra on this track are lovely.
Girl Disappearing: Finishing off the main album proper is ADP tune “Girl Disappearing”, a rather ominous closing note from a narrative standpoint. Really, if this album is capturing Tori’s story, one wonders why everything is so dark. Digression aside, this is a wonderful reworking, so much so that had I never heard the original, I would have embraced it on the album proper. I’m not super fond of the echo-ey “riding on backs” pre-chorus vocals but the rest is sublime. The orchestra makes this one.
Admittedly, I haven’t checked out all of the bonus tracks, but “Maybe California” is gorgeous, and 2020k pretty much nails why in far more eloquent fashion, so I’ll shuffle off stage and hand him back the proverbial mic.
“Maybe California,” one of the bonus tracks on the digital and international releases of Gold Dust is worth the listen, large in fact that it holds the epitome of what the album was attempting to get across. For this collection of songs, Tori Amos obviously went through her catalog in order to uncover pieces that have already had string arrangements composed to the tracks, but for this particular project, Amos is arranged around the strings. They’re beefed up for this release and ready to assault, when necessary and called upon. Of course, Tori and her gloriously talented piano playing are still wide and present, but are at times buried in the mix or not as present in the normal place she would be in the mix of her normal studio releases.
They’re less rocked out and more toned down and because of this, Gold Dust sits at an extremely noble average of 10 decibels of dynamic range throughout the entirety of the record.
Getting to this notion of “mellow” versus a more “rocked out” Tori, I have a general complaint about the album. On many tracks, I found the orchestra underused, and perhaps that’s due to a fallacy in my expectations. I thought that reworking these songs would involve building new layers or toying with new melodic support or emphasis. Instead, songs with existing arrangements were scarcely more than rehashings in many cases. It all feels like a wasted opportunity.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the worst thing Tori has ever done for her career is produce her own work. She has lost the ability to capture her raw self in recordings. Compare the emotion in “Northern Lad” to her more recent work and you’ll see what I mean. There’s a reserved quality to the work in the composition and delivery. Some of these tracks manage to go to that evocative place, but many fall hopelessly flat in comparison to the original recordings.
Tori needs a fresh set of ears to come into that studio and not be afraid to say, “This sucks. Change it or lose it.” She needs someone to push her boundaries and knock down the walls of this autopilot “mommy comfort zone” she’s been dwelling in. It’s pretty telling (and kind of sad) that songs of passion from her back catalogue have disappeared from live sets, save during the ADP tour with its “Tori performing as Pip/Clyde/Isabel/Santa” shtick (which worked far better than it ought to have).
In terms of production, while Midwinter Graces and American Doll Posse showed pure lackluster approaches with the mixing process (which may be because Tori and team have gotten extremely comfortable together, working alongside one another through almost the entirety of her career) this classical record, along with Night of Hunters, may not necessarily show a strong determination toward lyrics and melodies that effortlessly guide their way straight for the jugular and trigger the limbic system to give way to emotional outpours, they’re respectable contemporaneous pieces of work that demonstrate versatility and a willingness to progress in a more musical manner, all the while reaching far back to those roots of being just a ministers daughter along the cornfields of our body maps, playing standards in the gay clubs while the clouds along which Jamaica Fucking Inn seeks a playground alongside the general joy of the Corn Mother’s parasol. (A torism for all the Toriphiles out there. You figure it out).
What a secret spell of teenage hustled memories of pretty good years you have safe in your frame, 2020k!
“What does it look like? This blogital world. From the fringes of Tori Amos’ new performances glasssessssssssssss.”
The pics of her from TVAB era with glasses are so hot. I am so in favour of the glasses. They also deflect from her eye lift. Mwahahaha.
Also, can I PLEASE quote that Blogital line in the actual post please please please??
LMAO. YES! QUOTE IT. Tori fans are either going to praise us or kick us out of the family.
Please. It’s running in the family, YES SAID! *piano bench hump*
Enough hijinks (for now, although you should have seen the emails arguing about “Flavor”, “Secret Spell” and “Jackie”…). This woman divides us, like Canaan, pieeeeeeeeeeeece by pieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeece…
Tori: you seem to be grasping at concepts in desperate attempts to spin the straw remnants of your muse into gold again. It’s okay to be done. You’ve written so many freaking songs already. Tour them every few years. Relax in between. If an album pops out organically, great! Stop forcing yourself to deliver on a schedule. Music isn’t fast food – at least, yours isn’t.
Final Grade: B+
This article was written alongside Amber from Open ‘Til Midnight. A lovely friend, fellow blogger, and published author of her debut novel Change of Season (under the pen name A.C. Dillon) which was released in the summer of 2012.
This article was written alongside RJ, the guru behind 2020k. A dear brother of another mother (kinda like Tori and Matty C.), fellow blogger and talented musician, who recently unleashed his demo EP for mass enjoyment. Also, the second novel drops on Halloween – hence why updates have been sporadic of late. Forgive me?