Tori Amos, “Boys For Pele”

Boys For Pele

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #51 – released January 23, 1996)

Track listing: Beauty Queen / Horses / Blood Roses / Father Lucifer / Professional Widow / Mr. Zebra / Marianne / Caught a Lite Sneeze / Muhammad My Friend / Hey Jupiter / Way Down / Little Amsterdam / Talula / Not The Red Baron / Agent Orange / Doughnut Song / In The Springtime of His Voodoo / Putting The Damage On / Twinkle

When approaching new work by artists we love, we inevitably weigh it against expectations put in place by what came before. These comparisons allow for first impressions that can span a wide spectrum, from immense pleasure to utter disgust and every gradation in between. Over the years, brand new albums from my favorite musicians have alternately left me pleased, soothed, vindicated, disillusioned, delightfully surprised and downright baffled.

Boys for Pele mostly fell into that last category on my first listen days after its release. While not altogether foreign from Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, Tori Amos’ third album was certainly different; I referred to it as “Tori Goes Off The Deep End” in my journal at the time. Consider the facts: eighteen tracks long instead of the usual twelve… fewer orchestral arrangements and more newfangled sounds like harpsichord, brass band, programmed drums and a gospel choir… knotty, oblique lyrics (“Tuna, rubber, a little blubber in my igloo”) that made Amos’ previously most obscure references, such as those on the Alice Walker-inspired “Cornflake Girl” seem positively lucid. And of course, the cover: instead of crouching in a box with a toy piano or demurely standing still, draped in white, she’s sprawled across a rocking chair on a porch in some rural backwater, legs strewn with dirt, a shotgun on her lap and a dead rooster hanging upside down next to her. This double album-length collection was clearly making some kind a statement, possibly Amos telling her fans (and all curious onlookers), “It’s time for me to take a bold leap forward, whether you’re ready to join me or not.”

The crucial thing to know about this record is that it’s the first one Amos produced herself. Much of her prior work was helmed by Eric Rosse, with whom she was romantically involved. They split up during the making of Under the Pink, so Pele is not only Amos taking control of the way her music sounds (she would self-produce all of her subsequent recordings), it’s also nominally a breakup album, occasionally seething with rage and a swagger that at times exceeds even the most incendiary passages of Little Earthquakes. I’m tempted to call it a textbook Difficult Third Album—less accessible and considerably denser than its predecessors for sure—but it’s so much more than that. Although parts of Pele still flummox me now, through time and many listens, it has become my most favorite Amos album after Little Earthquakes.

For such a call-to-attention, Pele opens rather quietly and tentatively with “Beauty Queen”, all lingering piano notes and minimalist, haiku-like lyrics. It’s a prelude, appearing in the track listing but actually sharing the first CD track with “Horses”, whose more concrete melody materializes about two minutes in. It’s still all just piano and voice, but noticeably fuller and hookier, gaining momentum through multiple, layered arpeggios. Partially amplified through a Leslie cabinet, Amos’ signature Bösendorfer piano carries a slightly otherworldly tint, but otherwise the song could’ve easily fit on her previous albums.

Not so for “Blood Roses”, Amos’ first-ever song to utilize a harpsichord (also amplified) in place of piano. Its lower, baroque tone is a new texture in the Tori-verse—an earthier energy that also comes through in her vocal as she works the pedals of this archaic instrument. She’s ever in tune and in control, but also freer, as if dangling on a precipice when she abruptly shifts to a higher register on the “You think I’m a queer / I think you’re a queer” part, nearly out of breath on each “queer”. She later breaks into a mighty wail on the “God knows I’ve thrown away those graces” bridge, and rattles off a series of seemingly improvised “C’mon’s” as if she were a possessed jazz singer. Sparingly employed church bells and a low organ hum complete the unorthodox arrangement.

She’s back to the Bösendorfer on “Father Lucifer”, where guitar and bass make their first appearances on Pele. Far less intimidating than “Blood Roses”, it has one of the album’s catchiest melodies (and hooks—the clipped “ha” preceding each verse), but that’s not to downplay its complexity, especially at the bridge, which expands on a bed of countermelodies and overlapping vocals, dotted by startling but graceful trumpet flourishes. Much of the album was recorded in a church in rural Ireland, and you can hear the uncommon effect this has all over Pele. In place of a traditional studio’s unavoidable sterility, the recordings feel more intimate and alive. It’s as if Amos has set out to recapture the precarious, uncomfortable vibe of her earlier a Capella track “Me and a Gun”, only with instruments.

Still, nothing you’ve heard so far anticipates what comes next. “Professional Widow” is where Amos really does go off the deep end and it’s an astonishing plunge. The harpsichord returns with a vengeance, this time buttressed by an onslaught of programmed beats rolling along with her enraged, profane vocal (opening line is “Slag pit / stag shit / honey, bring it close to my lips, yes,” soon followed by “Starfucker / just like my daddy”).  It’s a raucous, alarming, sometimes hilarious song (“gonna strike a deal / make him feel like a congressman”); it’s also exceedingly weird, particularly when everything drops out at 1:30 for a piano-and-voice interlude with a completely different melody and unnervingly light tone. “We’ve got every rerun / of Muhammad Ali,” Amos sweetly, nonsensically trills before the song swerves back to the beginning, angrier than ever, eventually reaching another tempo changing, sinus clearing coda. I know I dismissed Kate Bush comparisons in my essay on Little Earthquakes, but Amos placing “Professional Widow” on her third album is as if Bush had gone straight from her relatively accessible second album Lionheart to her “I’ve gone mad” fourth album The Dreaming, passing over the transitional Never For Ever.

Having established Pele’s adventurous scope in just four tracks, Amos continues pushing forward. The second of four brief interludes (if you count “Beauty Queen”), “Mr. Zebra”, a whimsical, cabaret-like number recorded with the Black Dyke Mills Brass Band, reminds one of Little Earthquakes’ “Leather” a bit; more interestingly, it anticipates something like Fiona Apple’s “Extraordinary Machine” by nearly a decade. Piano ballad “Marianne” features Pele’s only string arrangement (performed by The Sinfonia of London). As those strings rapidly cut in and out of the melody, Amos punctuates her vocals along the spaces in between, recalling not so much Kate Bush as prime Joni Mitchell. “Caught a Lite Sneeze” brings back the programmed drums, almost nodding towards trip-hop in how Amos’ piano and voice hypnotically wraps around them. It’s a more approachable breakup lament than “Professional Widow” and clever in how it occasionally imbues the personal with the political (“Make my own Pretty Hate Machine,” she sings in a nod to friend Trent Reznor.) “Muhammad My Friend” reprises Amos’ use of religious imagery (as heard in “Father Lucifer”, “God”, “Crucify”, etc.) but only after a lengthy, gorgeous piano intro that shifts into a different but equally beautiful melody. It’s soon illuminated by a sweet soprano sax and disarmingly absurd lyrics about finding “a place in the Pope’s rubber robe,” and inviting us to “do drop in at the Dew Drop Inn,” negating claims of Amos’ supposed humorlessness.

Though aurally and thematically diverse, you can sense Pele building towards something, and it arrives just before the halfway mark. “Hey Jupiter” is more straightforward than what precedes it, but that does not diminish any of its power. Constructed like a classic, mournful, piano-and-voice ballad (the intro recalling nothing so much as Bette Midler’s “The Rose”), it initially seems to follow the tried and true path of a thousand other ballads. However, there are no added-on strings and the delicate melody develops and strengthens without Amos exactly erupting into full-on, Celine Dion-esque over-emoting. Instead, when the chorus arrives, she simply, wordlessly sings over her piano and electric guitar chords in a clever but completely affecting “Purple Rain” rip. Her subtle use of loud-soft dynamics lends the song its plaintive but awesome magic, along with lyrics that alternate between her usual quirkiness (“Your apocalypse was fab”) and those that hit directly to the gut (“Guess I never thought I could feel / the things I feel.”)

If Pele’s second half lacks the first’s consistency, at least it never runs out of steam. The third interlude, “Way Down” is most notable for the gospel choir (recorded in New Orleans) at its very end, introducing a new kind of warmth to Amos’ oeuvre. It’s an evocative prelude to “Little Amsterdam”, a Flannery O’Connor-esque Southern gothic built on a swampy piano riff and touched with kudzu-like background electronic effects. The loping, undulating, dark groove is another new wrinkle for Amos, as is the jazzy, almost feral cadence she breaks into late in the song. “Talula” retains the past two tracks’ regionalism and is perhaps the only one on Pele to go for a relatively maximalist arrangement—the harpsichord returns along with the full band, plus drum programming and (barely discernible) horns. The song’s giddy brightness earmarked it for a single, and it’s surely the only one to ever feature such lyrics as “I’ve got Big Bird on the fishing line,” and “I’ve got my rape hat on.” Opening with another lengthy piano intro, “Not the Red Baron” is a much-needed palette cleanser, melancholy and march-like, with a few Peanuts references (“Not Charlie’s wonderful dog”) to boot.

Fourth and final interlude “Agent Orange” is even wispier a composition than the preceding three, but the following “Doughnut Song” makes up for it. A deceptively simple track whose title hook has a fortune cookie-like specificity (“You’ll never gain weight from a doughnut hole”), it gains in intensity as its repeated piano hook begins to shimmer and the counterpoint vocals on the second verse add heft. Just as effectively, Amos defuses this intensity near the end as the song circles back to its opening. “In the Springtime of His Voodoo” conjures more Joni Mitchell comparisons, only this time circa her challenging, late ‘70s jazz period. Pounding piano, nonsensical scat singing, sly observations like “Honey, we’re recovering Christians”, repeated requests to “Mr. Sulu” to go “Warp speed”, supposed bagpipes (they’re in the credits)—it’s a lot to unpack (admittedly, I used to often skip over it). And yet, whenever you arrive at that blissful chorus or upon a brief but heavenly key-changing bridge, it’s enough for all but the most aggravated listener to forgive having to sit through Amos’ pretensions and peculiarities to reach it.

Just as Pele is threatening an irreversible slide towards obscurity, the penultimate “Putting the Damage On” surfaces like a beacon through the fog. The brass band returns for an opening fanfare that rapidly builds in volume before going silent and letting just Amos and her piano take the first verse. Like “Hey Jupiter”, it’s another classic-sounding breakup ballad with such clever yet vulnerable lyrics as “Now I’ve got to put on my best impression / of my best Angie Dickinson.” The brass, however, transforms it into something more. When Amos sings, “Take it high, high, high,” and hits that third “high”, the horns rise up to life and would nearly drown her out if they weren’t so in sync with her (and Amos and the band likely recorded their parts separately). Because of their ultra-specific tone, the effect of them coming together with her is mesmerizing rather than chilling. They open up the song in all the right ways, but it’s Amos who provides the lone, effective closing note.  For many, this would be an ideal spot to close the album, but Amos ends Pele the way it began, with only her voice and piano. “Twinkle” just seems to hang there in an abstract space similar to “Beauty Queen”, although there’s a little more resolve, a sense of having lived through something—perhaps wisdom gleaned from experience. “She twinkles / and that means / I sure can,” she sings, but adds that it’s also “so hard”, repeats those last two words, and the album ends.

The demanding Pele had the somewhat ironic fortune to come out right at Amos’ commercial peak, debuting at number two on both the US and UK album charts*; since then, she’s gradually fallen back to cult/legacy artist status, although her albums still regularly make the top ten. On occasion, she even puts out a pretty decent one such as Pele’s follow-up, From the Choirgirl Hotel, or her epic post 9/11 travelogue/concept LP Scarlet’s Walk. Still, nothing else she’s done has had quite the same impact as Pele. It doesn’t offer much conclusiveness or catharsis; its flamboyance courts attention, yet it never showboats nor merely exists for Amos to show the world what she’s capable of. However, it’s more unfiltered than those first two albums and cuts nearer to the bone. It’s the type of record that requires close, headphones listening; you have to take the time to absorb and live with its eccentricities, detours and tonal/structural shifts. It’s Amos working (perhaps for the first time) without a net, fully trusting her instincts and in the process creating something that stands apart from her previous triumphs, but is equally built to last.

Next: Rebuking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song.

*Speaking of unlikely chart successes, “Professional Widow” was a number one UK single, albeit in a near-unrecognizable techno version remixed by Armand Van Helden and subtitled “It’s Got to Be Big” (one of the two lyrics it samples from the original recording).

“Hey Jupiter”:

“Professional Widow”:

Tori Amos, “Little Earthquakes”

little earthquakes(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #31 – released February 25, 1992. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 5/27/15.)

Track listing: Crucify / Girl / Silent All These Years / Precious Things / Winter / Happy Phantom / China / Leather / Mother / Tear In Your Hand / Me And A Gun / Little Earthquakes

I’ve mentioned before that 1992, the year I turned 17, is when everything changed in regards to how music shaped my life. Likely, the same thing happened to you, if not at 17, then probably somewhere near there: as we come of age, we’re at our most impressionable, feeling like we’re experiencing everything for the first time because more often than not, we genuinely are. It follows that the next thirty-odd albums I’ll be covering here all came out between 1992 and 1997 (and I heard a majority of them for the first time during that era). While a good writer is aware of nostalgia’s pitfalls and studiously tries to avoid them (no matter how tempting), any assessment made about some of these albums would seem incomplete and false if I did not divulge in personal details or anecdotes directly related to their impact on me.

There’s one night from this period I still hold particularly deep in my heart, so much that I remember the exact date: July 5, 1996, a Friday evening in Milwaukee. After playing multiple rounds of Connect Four at an East Side coffeehouse, a few friends (all female) and I drove down to Lake Michigan and set off for the rocks lining the shore north of Bradford Beach. Climbing those rocks was forbidden, but we didn’t care—the worst that could happen would be a cop spotting us and telling us to leave (no one did). Sitting there after midnight under a clear, starry sky, listening to the waves and the occasional vehicle zooming by along Lincoln Memorial Drive, one of us began to sing a song from Little Earthquakes. I don’t remember which song, exactly—it might have been “Silent All These Years” or “Winter”—but we all joined in, and then sang a few others, probably “Precious Things” and “Crucify”, maybe even “Leather”. Nearly two decades removed, it admittedly seems a little corny, but let me tell you at the time it was absolutely profound, to bond over sharing this secret, special place with each other, singing songs from an album we spontaneously discovered we all adored.

If it’s now difficult to fathom how beloved Tori Amos was at her career peak in the early-mid 1990s, note that at the time, just as many people reviled the very idea of her. She was often called twee, pretentious, precious and other derogatory terms. Every other music writer seemed to accuse her of sounding too much like early Kate Bush—a fair observation musically, I suppose, although vocally I still don’t get how anyone could possibly mistake Amos’ unique timbre for Bush’s equally distinct tone. At 17, even I curtly dismissed the videos MTV aired from Little Earthquakes as “girl-with-a-piano” stuff, only coming around when I heard “God”, the first single from her follow-up album, Under the Pink (1994). Sinuous, playful and a little audacious (“Do you need a woman to look after you?” she asks the titular deity), it got my attention. Under the Pink proved an intriguing, if demanding listen; when I finally checked out the earlier album some time later, its relative accessibility clicked right away for me, the melodies and textures deepening and revealing new facets with each spin like any great album should.

So immediately and extensively does Amos establish her persona across Little Earthquakes’ first three tracks that, upon listening to them again nearly a quarter-century on, any skepticism towards her relevance or ability to connect with an audience quickly evaporates. Her opening salvo, “Every finger in the room / is pointing at me / I wanna spit in their faces / then I get afraid of what that could bring” conveys her candor and a confessional nature whose lineage one can uncover all the way back to Blue. Then, she takes a few steps further, linking religion to sex (“looking for a savior beneath these dirty sheets”) to guilt (she has enough “to start her own religion”) and self-immolation (“I’ve been raising up my hands / drive another nail in”). She steps back, hinting at a little self-deprecation (“Just what God needs / one more victim”) before declaring her defiance in the chorus (“Why do we crucify ourselves?”). As with every song on the album (save for one), the piano is the dominant instrument, although the airy, booming percussion is just as prominent here.

Both return for “Girl” along with some sampled synth-strings (and in the bridge, a few unexpected, intricate overlapping melodies). Switching to the third-person lyrically, it feels less intimate than “Crucify” but the chorus’ feminist observation that “She’s been everybody else’s girl / maybe one day she’ll be her own,” resonates instantly. With “Silent All These Years”, she returns to the first-person, singing from the vantage point of someone in a relationship stifled by her partner, summoning the desire and courage to be heard. Although she teases him about “a girl who thinks really deep thoughts”, this is more a declaration than just mere comment. The force with which she sings, “Sometimes I hear my voice and it’s been here” is massive, placing glorious emphasis on that last word, showing a proficiency for the soft/loud/soft dynamic favored by contemporary alt-rock bands like the Pixies and Nirvana only in a far more delicate orchestral pop setting. Such a confluence of personal, deeply felt affirmation and an indelible melody has made “Silent All These Years” the album’s true standard and biggest “hit” (even if it never made the top 40).

From there, Little Earthquakes goes off on tangents that occasionally return to, but more often complicate and alter our expectations of Amos set up by the previous songs. “Precious Things” opens with a low hum of noise followed by a skittering piano and an accompanying sound perhaps resembling a person running, trying to catch her breath. Amos’ voice enters calm and slow over the unusual, anxiety-ridden time signature. She remains in control as the arrangement goes practically mental (not to mention metal), drums pummeling all over the chorus until we hear a guitar and a thunder crack, followed by her magnificent, intense wail as if all hell has broken loose and she physically cannot remain silent anymore. If you’re listening to the album for the first time in sequence, you might as well wonder, “What happened to that nice young woman with the piano from the first three tracks?” Here she’s far closer to the fury of someone like Trent Reznor (note how she references him via “those demigods with their nine-inch nails”) than Joni Mitchell, and all the more admirable for it.

Much of the rest of the album alternates between serious, reflective orchestral ballads and playful, whimsical diversions. With its lone piano and crystalline melody, the opening of “Winter” stands in great, gripping contrast to “Precious Things”. Amos almost effortlessly aces this sort of thing, the orchestration stirringly weaving in and out of her piano and vocals, lending depth to what could’ve too easily ended up another monochromatic ballad. “Happy Phantom”, on the other hand, is a palette cleanser, deliberately jaunty and upbeat, the piano even breaking into a boogie-woogie on the pre-chorus while making room for joyous “woo-hoo’s”, some dulcimer during the bridge, imagery like “chasing nuns out in the yard” and an abrupt, dissonant outro. “China”, in contrast, is another slow one; this time, the orchestration is smooth and richly textured, enveloping Amos with elegance and grace—it’s not too far off from one of Madonna’s classier ballads like “Oh Father”. “Leather” follows, baring its lack of guile from the very start (opening lines are, “Look I’m standing naked before you / don’t you want more than my sex”), its arch, staccato notes fitting in nicely with a suddenly revealed sense of humor (the affected, exaggerated tone Amos lends to the words “nice big fat cigar”), all coming off like a teasing-but-knowing cabaret number of the sort one upcoming 100 Albums artist practically built her career on.

In theory, such vacillation should make for a jagged listen. I can’t fully determine how “Mother”, a nearly seven minute piano-and-voice number that takes its sweet time in getting to where it wants to go sits comfortably next to “Tear In Your Hand”, a more conventional, lush, radio-friendly breakup song. Likewise, I can’t explain how flawlessly the hushed, demure “China” seems to follow the exceedingly giddy “Happy Phantom”. Still, for all her changes in tone and demeanor, Amos is obviously the glue holding it all together. What remains constant throughout all of Little Earthquakes is both her fearlessness (Madonna’s the only other person in ’92 who would even attempt a lyric like “so you can make me cum / that doesn’t make you Jesus”) and her vulnerability. They play a vital part in the album’s final two songs, both of which find Amos going even beyond those parameters she has so far set.

“Me and a Gun” has no orchestra, no guitar, no drums, not even a piano—just Amos singing a melody simple enough for a nursery rhyme, although it’s far more suited to a murder ballad. She bluntly recounts being raped, just “Me and a gun / and a man on my back.” She remembers the harrowing, traumatic experience as if reliving it, talking herself through it (“You can laugh, it’s kinda funny / the things you think at times like these / like I haven’t seen Barbados / so I must get outta this”). Naturally, recording the song a capella suitably renders it almost unbearably intimate, heightening its emotional impact. I can imagine how startled first-time listeners would be, completely unaware that it’s coming. To place it any earlier on Little Earthquakes would be too soon, with no chance to process everything Amos has divulged in those first ten tracks; to end the album with it would be far too brutal—an ending without any hope.

Thus, after Amos sings her last note in “Me and a Gun”, the title track/album closer promptly begins. Its first measures are soft yet cavernous, one dominant droning chord over which Amos lets out seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyrics until the chord changes and she sings, “and I hate / and I hate / and I hate… elevator music,” but also less trivial things like “the way we fight”. On the chorus, she laments, “Oh these little earthquakes / doesn’t take much to rip us into pieces,” easily a summation of everything else she’s sung about here. From that point, the song builds like a volcano ready to erupt: a brief, deceptively lighthearted piano lick at 3:17 soon gives way to loud, impassioned cries of “Hey, can I reach you?” until everything drops out at 3:57, with Amos and assorted voices repeating this, the album’s key mantra: “Give me life, give me pain, / give me myself again.” It’s sung six times, gaining in volume and power until the key changes again and Amos repeatedly wails with the force of one thousand earthquakes (I can’t do justice to exactly how her 26-syllable wail sounds by writing it down). A grand act of catharsis and an attempt at redemption, this part is the song’s emotional climax; all that’s left is for Amos to do is quietly return to the chorus once more and bring this whirlwind down to a resolved close.

Amos set the bar for herself so high with Little Earthquakes that if she never recorded another record, or one at least half as good, her place in the singer/songwriter firmament would still be secure. I agree with those who maintain she never topped it, but her subsequent career proved so rewarding and wide-ranging that I have trouble defining her solely by it. As I continually revise this list of 100 Albums in my mind, Amos has two other records I periodically consider including—don’t be surprised if at least one of them makes the final cut.

Up next: To age gracefully.

“Precious Things”:


“Little Earthquakes”: