Tori Amos, Strange Little Girls (Atlantic, 2001)

Originally Appeared in The Green Man Review with Excellence in Writing Award (EIWA).

Tori Amos has been doing covers for a long time. She lends a passion to the Cure’s “Love Song” (using harpsichord in one performance), REM’s “Losing My Religion”, The Police’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger”, and Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” that make them truly her own. She even does Springsteen better than Springsteen. Still, a whole album of covers is a novel and ambitious project. One thinks of cover songs as what an artist does when she’s having fun or before she has enough of her own material. Tori, ever one to take up a challenge and scream at it until the gauntlet is passed, has succeeded in making a salient point about using other people’s lyrics and has challenged something else in the process.

The themes of violence, sexuality, and tensions between the sexes are, of course, hallmarks of Tori Amos’ musicology. In that sense, this CD is no different. But it is different. This is an album specifically about men, about “how men say things, and how women hear them.” Twelve songs written by men are retold by female characters created and sung by Tori.

The tracks are:

1. New Age (The Velvet Underground)
2. 97' Bonnie & Clyde (Eminem)
3. Strange Little Girl (The Stranglers)
4. Enjoy The Silence (Depeche Mode)
5. Rattlesnakes (Lloyd Cole & The Commotions) 
6. I'm Not In Love (10cc)
7. Time (Tom Waits)
8. Heart Of Gold (Neil Young)
9. I Don't Like Mondays (The Boomtown Rats) 
10. Happiness Is A Warm Gun (The Beatles) 
11. Raining Blood (Slayer)
12. Real Men (Joe Jackson)

There is also an unreleased/released “single” containing

1. Strange Little Girl (The Stranglers)
2. After All (David Bowie)
3. Only Women Bleed (Alice Cooper)

It was just about to be released when it was cancelled, according toTori, but a lot of copies were leaked, so it’s floating around “out there”in some abundance.

This is arguably the most powerful album Tori has produced, the most beautifully heretical one. The music, her treatment of the lyrics, and her vocal characterizations are consuming. Says Tori, “You take a man’s word, you take his seed.” The question of whether that is threatening or thrilling is up to the particular listener and is liable to ebb and flow with the cycling of tracks on the CD.

To give one an idea of what might interest her in these songs, Tori said this about the Eminem cover: “the scariest thing was … the realization that people are getting into the music and grooving along to a song about a man who is butchering his wife… So half the world is dancing to this, oblivious, with blood on their sneakers. But when you talk about killing your wife, you don’t get to control whom she becomes friends with after she’s dead. She had to have a voice.”

In this album Tori does something that is culturally unusual if not taboo. As her “words like violence break the silence”, she picks up the power of particularly masculine poetry and voice, walks right up to the listener, stands toe to toe, meeting the gaze, and says ‘how does it sound when say it?’ I found myself several times through this album catching my breath, startled, taken continually off-guard, noticing how my heartbeat quickened. The power of it wasn’t diminished through repetition, either. In the album’s press release from Atlantic, Tori says “Words are like guns. Your fingerprints cannot be erased from your words; you only leave the scene of the crime covered in ink.”

This album occasioned one of those moments that made me realize precisely as a male and as a writer what writing one’s pain — one’s conflict– with women not the least, can do. It gave me pause to think about the price paid for “violence”, and what it can sound like to a woman who is really listening. But in that someone is really listening, hearing the sexual conflict, and asking about it — bringing it back and asking what it really means, I too felt covered in ink, and yet washed in it as well.

Personally, I’m deeply affected by Tori’s music; it moves through me. Her first albums began a dialogue of conflicts and questions and identities that seems to have been shared by so many of her listeners. One can’t help but admire work like this too for its multifaceted brilliance. This album is a work of art in its most basic sense — a provocation of something shadowy and fearful, a question too anguished to articulate in prose, an invocation of something seminal and liquid, rendering both blood and tears. One hears it as she intones “the sky’s crimson tear” in the Slayer cover “Raining Blood”. It’s alchemy of the finest order.

Instrumentally, one won’t be disappointed with either the soft piano solo tracks or for example the heavier distorted work of “Heart of Gold” which is true to the atmosphere of Young’s performances without being merely derivative. Tori’s vocal and piano processing of metal (eg. Slayer) isn’t mere reduction but a lovely softening that serves to focus the listener on the lyrics under study.

This album belongs in the collections of Tori Amos fans and will serve just as well for a first introduction to Tori as an artist.

The Official Atlantic press release on this album is a must read. There’s a truly fascinating page devoted to the details of this album and the unreleased/released tracks here.

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