'Little Earthquakes' and 'Under the Pink'
Tori’s first four albums are beloved touchstones for many people. The music provides a firm foundation for her career by establishing that, for Tori, there are no rules when it comes to the way she approaches composition. These albums showcase Tori’s ability to create her own mythology in visionary ways each time out.
Little Earthquakes (1992)
When I first heard Little Earthquakes 20 years ago (shudder!), I was immediately enraptured. The song “Silent All These Years” appealed to me as an 18-year-old gay man just coming out, the idea of being silent and breaking violently free of that to claim my voice really turned me on. It inspired me, provoked me. Tori wasn’t just sitting back and being polite about taking shit, she was fucking pissed about it in a poetic, emotionally articulate way. I really liked that about her and especially about her music, full of fury and solace in equal measure; a delicate balance. There was a cathartic feeling that she managed to capture. Tori Amos’ landmark debut album as a solo artist remains one of the most visceral records of the 1990s and when re-examined after so much time really stands up as the bones of Tori’s oeuvre, as well as the blood and guts.
The sinewy connective tissue of Little Earthquakes can be seen best in the quiet killers such as “Mother” and the acappella “Me and a Gun” whose chilling spirit will haunt the listener with their complex, deliberately spare arrangements that highlight the high drama and warmth of Tori’s voice and playing. She invites you into her heartbreak in a very personal way that perhaps she never did after, rightfully so. The album’s backbone is made up of strong, densely-layered songs like “Girl” and “Tear in Your Hand”, which have a more traditional rock band structure. “I think probably ‘Tear in Your Hand’ was the one song at the time that [seemed most commercial]—and ‘Girl’—that somehow got under Doug Morris’ skin,” said Eric Rosse, co-producer of the album. “Those songs helped everything make sense together.” String-laden ballads like “Winter” or “China” dare you to not surrender to their teary earnestness and easy relatablity. Songs like “Precious Things” or the sultry “Leather” retain their sizzle and ripeness, while the epic title track is the pulsating, powerful heart of what would become the “Tori Amos Sound”, a lean muscle that sets the beat for what has been a thrilling 20 years.
As much as the record speaks to universal matters of the heart, it also still packs a wallop, and as very few would dispute Little Earthquakes’ significance in retrospect, that the record nearly didn’t happen because of a record executive’s misconceptions is nearly unthinkable. Rosse commented on the record’s origins: “The label rejected the project [that became Little Earthquakes] because they didn’t think the songs were commercially viable. So we went off to make demos and tried to make songs we thought were cool but would still make the label happy. Doug Morris was really the guy who believed in her but didn’t know what to do with her. They made a really smart decision to send her to England and break the record out of the UK. I think that made a lot of sense at the time.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Or hers. “In the old days, I was fascinated by how the great guitarists—Hendrix, Prince, Van Halen—how the guitar was an extension of them,” Tori recently told PopMatters. “And so early on, as Little Earthquakes was recorded, I realized that people’s impression of a woman playing at the piano looked a certain way, and one of the words they never said was power. You know, jaw dropping power. And I kind of thought to myself, “Well, you know what they say about guitar players, and the piano that I wanna play is 9 foot 6, so I’m gonna put on a high heel and I’m gonna straddle this baby.” Matt Mazur
Key Track: “Winter”
Take a Closer Look: “Little Earthquakes”
Under the Pink (1994)
For all its quirky modernist flourishes—the twitchy electric guitar work in “God,” the reggae-and-jazz-influenced gaits of “Past the Mission” and the immortal “Cornflake Girl”, the thrilling grungy bridge that erupts in “Pretty Good Year”—Amos’s second album feels like her most classically influenced work, at least until Night of Hunters (2011). Now delicate, now playful, now thunderous and dramatic, her superb piano-playing perfectly matches Under the Pink’s abstract narrative fragments and startling lyrical images.
“As the story goes, she used an arranger for Pink that didn’t quite work out, and I got a call that evening. I didn’t actually know the full scope of what happened,” recalled John Philip Shenale. “I was curious but I didn’t want to hear it so it wouldn’t influence me. In other words, I wanted to approach it as a free spirit, what I was perceiving, uncolored. So after the record was done, I put the DAT on and it was the most amazing music I had ever heard that would never fit with anybody, let alone Tori. For every note Tori sang, there was probably about 16 chromatic notes in between. It was amazing, technically, but it was the exactly the opposite of who she is. She didn’t know what to do in that situation. You have the record company and everyone on your case essentially. So after the session, she went in and deleted maybe $30-$50,000 worth of work. The thing is, though, is that the action of doing that makes you free, and I think that’s why she did that. Knowing her, that was an important step. She had to make a decision and know there was no remedying it other than another approach.”
Far from Little Earthquakes II the album, recorded in New Mexico, took Amos in all kinds of exciting new directions. “On [Little Earthquakes] you saw me naked,” Amos was quoted as saying at the time. “With Under the Pink I put some clothes on.” While some fans immediately bemoaned the album’s denser, more abstract lyrical approach, there’s no disputing that twelve tracks here come exquisitely attired, and are among Amos’s most haunting, surprising and enduring compositions.
Thematically, issues of female oppression and betrayal are to the fore, viewed from both a historical and a contemporary vantage. Delving “under the pink,” Amos emerges with tales such as the mysterious murder narrative “Past the Mission” (complete with Trent Reznor backing vocals), “Icicle”’s paean to masturbation, and the femicide-fantasy “The Waitress”, the indelible refrain of which—“I believe in peace, bitch”—encapsulates the album’s riveting ambivalences. “Tori writes more like a classical composer, in movement, and not so much in verses and choruses, not in typical pop structure.” said co-producer Eric Rosse. “A song like “Baker Baker,” that’s just something that she did and it’s quite structured. It’s a real classic kind of song structure and she spun that one out and it just came out that way.” The most extraordinary track, though, is the closing “Yes, Anastasia,” a sweeping piano-and-strings epic that brilliantly mixes tempos and moods before arriving at an upper-register coda that chills the blood. “We’ll see how brave you are,” indeed.
One of Under the Pink many shining moments, as well as another huge worldwide best-selling single alongside “Cornflake Girl”, was “God”. Rosse explained that “everyone was hearing “God” as a potential single but it has this weird structure, constantly changing time signatures. Things you don’t do in typical single oriented pop music structure. I was looking for ways to make it seem like it didn’t have so many time and temp changes. We had to make it sound unified and not jerking around so much, which was hard. Typically in a situation like that, Tori came up with a structure and then we had to make it work because lyrically it kind of had to be that way. In terms of lyrics, melody, and meter, it just had to be that. I think we tried straightening it out but it just didn’t feel cool, it didn’t work. There’s also a lot of programming on that album that you don’t necessarily know is programming because it is buried in there. Things that are made from weird samples and loops that we tried to make sound organic so you wouldn’t quite realize… The live drums were pretty minimized, they were brought in to give the song a bit of sonic space, but it was pretty heavily programmed. We had Paulinho de Costa, this great percussionist, play bamboo sticks live and that merged with the programming stuff and the whole thing felt like a mishmash of organic-ness. He brought out these huge sticks and was beating them on one of his equipment road cases.” Alex Ramon
Key Track: “Yes, Anastasia”
Take a Closer Look: “Space Dog”
Watch: “Bells for Her”