Make It a Double: Tori Amos, TO VENUS AND BACK

Thursday, June 7, 2018

When Tori Amos toured behind her solo debut LITTLE EARTHQUAKES back in 1992, she performed alone, at a piano — a lone figure on a dimly lighted stage singing extraordinary songs with minimal accompaniment. Fast-forward seven years, to her 1999 album TO VENUS AND BACK, a double-disc set featuring one CD of new songs and one of live recordings. The studio disc was awash in the sounds of trip-hop and electronica, which had crested out of the underground and been absorbed and appropriated into more commercial environs, but which were still jarring to hear as the music through which Amos would weave her poetry.

The dynamics of “Bliss” immediately grab the listener. Tense verses open into a wide-open chorus, only to recede again. Amos’ unique enunciations — a trademark of her vocal approach, both live and on record — stretch the words, as if to hide them within the music, the wash of percussion and keyboards. She speaks of being tethered to the man she’s addressing (her father? A lover?), then in the chorus, she resigns herself to the relationship: “So maybe we’re a bliss of another kind.”

“Juarez” is jarring; it begins with noise and drums, and again, Amos’ voice is mixed evenly with the music and filtered/distorted to complement the timbre of the percussion. The result obscures the vocal, compelling the listener to dig for it in the mix. The same goes for “Datura,” with its swirling synths and random sounds; it makes you think what Amos might sound like fronting Depeche Mode.
“1000 Oceans,” however, strips back everything to its essence. It’s a farewell, sad but resigned to the fate of the Other’s departure. The departure is certainly a death, and the singer is both buoyed and wounded by memory. The final image in the song, “to sail you home” seems final, and the melody that surrounds the thought lifts it, through the clouds to wherever “home” is. 

The live disc features Amos with a full band, and if listeners had only seen Amos on that first tour, they were in for a shock. “Cruel” plays with some of the same noisy textures as the studio material on Disc 1, while “Cornflake Girl” is a relatively straight reading of one of her most popular, resonant songs. Hewing close to the studio version works in this context — the audience anticipates every note and responds when the moments come.
Elsewhere, “Little Earthquakes” is seven minutes of churning intensity; the excesses are peeled back, and the bass work by Jon Evans is essential to the drama in the music. That segues into “Space Dog,” a swinging rock song from UNDER THE PINK. Sideways melodies clash with baroque interludes that build back into heavy verses. On UNDER THE PINK, the song gets lost; here, it’s a highlight.

TO VENUS AND BACK introduces Tori Amos’ music in a new context, one well worth exploring; she had come a long way from the quiet piano performances that introduced her to the world.

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