Feminine rock

Music - Richard Cook on the wilful peculiarities of one of the strong women of pop

Artists are meant to bare their heart and soul to us, but the problem with doing it over, say, a six-album deal is that turning on the emotional taps can leave the tank a little empty after the first few goes. This is especially so with singer-songwriters, who often do best by taking no more than a turn or two on the stage. Such performers can build a cult following more capably than most, but the returns can diminish so drastically that those who attempt to be in it for the long haul can become unspeakably tiresome. Do we, for instance, really need to hear anything further from such once-vibrant bores as Van Morrison or Elvis Costello?

Tori Amos, who debuted as far back as 1991 with Little Earthquakes, has kept herself reasonably scarce at times: Scarlet's Walk (Sony) is only her seventh album in a little over a decade, and this one follows an album of cover versions. More than most in her field, Amos isn't shy about exposing the nerve ends. High-flown poetry, shameless tears and inscrutable philosophising jostle for precedence on her curious projects. Although an American, a daughter of a Methodist minister, she is usually perceived as a sister figure to the quintessentially British Kate Bush in her delivery and objectifying. Unlike Bush's asexual art-rock, though, Amos's music is famously lubricous. The mild infamy enjoyed by "Me and a Gun", a song from her debut record, obscured the extraordinary tightrope that the song walked, since it concerned her rape by someone she knew. When you make a start like that, it's hard to keep opening more wounds.

The subsequent records have mapped out a difficult, oddly charming talent. It helps that Amos is a clever and un- rock'n'roll musician, playing from a Bosendorfer piano stool and adopting a stage manner somewhere between witch queen and knowing naIf. She has a voice without great range, but one that can become achingly pretty when she isn't underlining her lyrics with a waspy rasp. Her cult of admirers is vast, even though she has never really ascended into rock's top-selling league. Perhaps it's unsurprising that albums called Boys For Pele or From the Choirgirl Hotel haven't troubled too many of Jennifer Lopez's following, but Amos enjoys an adoring audience which dotes on every baroque twist. Maybe this is no bad thing. At a point where pop's school of Strong Women has never seemed more tediously self-serving, Tori's wilful peculiarities are an agreeable break from the norm.

Some have criticised Scarlet's Walk for falling back on the hoariest of rock formulas, the extended concept-album. Since I didn't have any explanatory notes with my copy and I rarely bother with lyric sheets, I can only go on the music, and this sounds very much as if it's among her most imaginative work. The trouble with eccentrics is that their charm can run dry all too quickly, and the sheer kookiness of some of her earlier records can be discouraging. This, though, is Amos going for the Great White Whale of her native art, a cross-country journey in search of the American soul. Touching down in Las Vegas, Virginia, New York or wherever, the first danger is that the music will simply mirror its local setting. Instead, Amos carefully builds each piece around piano, bass and drums, with three excellent guitarists taking turns to contribute, and nothing sounds generic or false. Where Tom Waits would litter this kind of thing with sonic grotesqueries, Amos is nearly genteel. Recorded in very close, natural sound, and with the vocals pushed gently into the listener's ear, it sounds soft and immediate and impeccably textured. On "Carbon", where the singer's multi-tracked vocals find an ecstatically beautiful harmony, it provokes the sort of rush that is pop's raison d'etre. It's dangerous to talk about the notion of a feminine rock, but Amos has surely come very close to particularising the idea in music like this.

It wouldn't be a Tori Amos record without a regulation dose of sex and spirituality, and the very first piece, "Amber Waves", retails a wistful reminiscence of a friend turned pornographic model, with the lyricist's eye for a strange detail intact: "You gave it up/To every boy's sweet dream/With their paper cuts". In the end, it never fetches up anywhere: on one side of the lyric sheet is an American map, with the music's journeyings set down, but it's hard to follow the navigational sense. Like so many modern records, it's too long, and 18 songs, for all their skill, bulk it out to the point where it starts to feel unnecessarily tired at the close. But this is, in toto, her most-measured, least-mannered, best-distilled record.

Scarlet's Walk is released by Sony

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