Happy 2014 everyone, I thought I’d write about something different this time, have a look at someone who changed the way I viewed music and how I appreciate it, and approach it.
Back in 1994, not quite 17, I was discovering and developing my own musical tastes, stepping away from Radio 1 and the bland dirge it was playing in the mid 90’s, I have never returned there.
Instead I was delving through my parents shelving, borrowing LP’s and listening avidly, bands like The Strawbs, ELO, Sky and Mike Oldfield, all artists who’ve accompanied me on my musical journey, with my developing love of all things Prog, Pink Floyd, Yes, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, it’s fair to say that my musical tastes were all male orientated, and mostly guitar led, if there wasn’t a killer riff buried in there I wasn’t interested.
I was slowly moving away from the diet of Dire Straits or Chris Rea that I had been listening to throughout 1992, Britpop didn’t interest me at the time, retrospectively the only band of any note in my opinion to come from Britpop was Pulp, and they were making weird and wonderful music long before Phoney Tony and ‘Cool Britannia’ came along!
Post Radio 1 and before I graduated to Radio 2 there was, in the early 90’s a national pretender to the throne, Virgin 1215, a radio station playing more rock than pop, and one which I gravitated to like a moth to a flame, where else could I hear Yes? Black Sabbath? Zeppelin? My beloved Beatles? And then one day, out of the ether, I heard her.
Myra Ellen Amos to use her Sunday name, Tori Amos to you and I, born 22nd August 1963 (we share the same birthday, but not the same year)
The song in question still nestles comfortably in my top ten singles, and is the brilliant Cornflake Girl, with its nursery rhyme esque lyrics, its driving piano, and catchy as hell tune, kicked open a door I’d never opened before, and within weeks its parent album, Tori’s 2nd solo long player, Under the Pink was mine.
The first album I’d ever bought by a female musician, and blimey, what an album, more assured, more experimental, stronger and more confident than her debut (Little Earthquakes 1992) from the hauntingly beautiful opening Pretty Good Year, Tori’s delicate piano playing, her intimate, breathy vocals and amazing vocal range, then, the strings sneak it subtly, and then building with Tori’s vocals and lyrics, nothing random or abstract here, just her and a piano, and it draws you in to the album, slowly building to the middle where the crescendo increases and a burst of guitar and bass, suggests more than sugary ballads are the order of the day.
God then takes any notion you may have been harbouring that Tori was a pretty girl with a piano, and throws them out of the window, the grinding funk, the backward distorted guitars and the lyrics suggesting God would be better with female company, and that voice, that beautiful voice of an angel singing the words of a cheeky devil, what a dichotomy.
The album is nicely paced between the softer tracks like Bells for Her and Baker, Baker, with the gritty, haunting and funky Past The Mission, with its story telling and backing vocals from Nine Inch Nails Trent Reznor, harmonising beautifully with Ms Amos.
The wonderfully quirky The Wrong Band, feels like a lot of the songs on the album, that we’re getting lyrical snapshots or vignettes of bigger pictures, like looking through someone’s photo album without knowing who the people are, or the context in which they were taken, and its this lyrical brevity and beauty that is part of the magic.
No song is too long, nowhere outstays its welcome, and we know all we need to know about the characters in these songs.
Then we get to the second part of the album, the wonderfully vitriolic The Waitress (but I believe in Peace, Bitch) with its snarled lyrics and angry fuzzy guitar, with the restrained drums that are threatening to explode at any moment, then the single, the fantastic, wonderful, sublime Cornflake Girl, I still don’t know what its about, and frankly I don’t care, its music, its chorus, its lyrics, the closing piano and guitar duel, Tori’s double and tripled tracked vocals harmonising, all come together to create a fantastic record that possesses the power of time travel, no matter where I hear it, it transports me back to 1994 and what I was doing then.
Cornflake Girl, Icicle, Cloud on My Tongue, Space Dog and the epic Yes, Anastasia is one of the strongest closing sequences on any album out there.
This, of course was recorded, programmed and designed in the days before MP3, and downloading, so, as with every great album from that era its designed to be listened to as an overall experience, not to be dipped into, as you lose the magic of the album, and the way the moods ebb and flow leading into each other.
From the mania of Cornflake Girl, to the reflective, introspective Tori and piano elegy that is Icicle, with her piano playing out of this world, intuitive, talented, classical, and with the pause between the notes as important as the notes, we’re nearly 2 minutes in before she even starts singing, and when she does, the voice melts your heart like the Icicle in the song title, the following Cloud on My Tongue, with its lush strings and its direct lyrics is a wonderful love song, and keeps the calmer mood started with Icicle.
The mood picks up again, with Space Dog, the beat and piano driving the song along, with the song being superficially about the animals sent in to space, never to return, but, as with all of Tori’s lyrics there’s always something much more going on in the undertow, and this hints at betrayal and back stabbing, sometimes you can decipher the hidden meanings, sometimes the meanings are ambiguous, which is one of the joys of her lyrics and performances.
The closing finale, the epic, 9 minutes plus of Yes, Anastasia, with its lyrics about the Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov, mixed in with references to Amos herself refusing to be a victim and fighting through her own personal trauma from having suffered a serious sexual assault (see the harrowing Me and a Gun, from her 1992 debut Little Earthquakes), a theme that runs through the whole album on tracks like Past the Mission and Baker, Baker, whilst the instrumentation is amazing, the orchestra soars, the piano sings and Tori’s voice is like an instrument throughout, pulling the strands together and tying them up.
With its closing refrain ‘We’ll see how brave you are’ and the sheer musical talent on display here, this is a mighty piece of work by anyone’s standards.
To someone like me raised on a musical diet of rock and guitars, hearing the piano freed from the traditional group format and on its own as the principle instrument on the album, was like seeing the difference between seeing a caged animal, and seeing the animal in the flesh.
This blew my mind when I first heard it, nearly 20 years ago, and opened me up to a new kind of music, a new way of listening, and as an album has been with me every step of the way from 1994 to today, and whilst Tori Amos continues to make fantastic music, and has produced a fine body of work over the last 20 years, it is this, Under the Pink, to which I return first, time and time again, and is one of those albums that have made me the person I am today.
If any album out there needs a deluxe edition, then this is it, how about it Warners? A nice 20th Anniversary edition, with all the b-sides and live tracks as well?