Today we explore Tori-as-curator and look at the various collections she has released. From box set rarities, to re-conditioned favorites, to a seasonal album, Tori’s penchant for constantly re-working and re-imagining her music leads listeners far beyond typical “Greatest Hits” offerings.
Midwinter Graces (2009)
The most shocking thing about Amos’ first seasonal—correction: “solstice”—record is that it isn’t shocking at all. Whereas the Tori of years past could hardly get through “Little Drummer Boy” without erupting into soaring shout accompanied by a heavy left hand, the music of Midwinter Graces is gentle and respectful, full of melodic warmth ideal for the chilly months. In typical Tori fashion, she’s taken the long and studied road, neglecting clichéd carols and opting instead to reinterpret lesser known tunes from their original source texts: simply defaulting to the original pronunciation of “Noel” in “What Child, Nowell” transforms the track into something especially captivating and unfamiliar; the sparkling production of “Jeanette, Isabella”, with its harmonizing of a plucky guitar, harpsichord, and some especially light tinkling on the Bosendorfer perfectly mimics the falling snow that serves as the backdrop for the nativity; “Star of Wonder” is as edgy a Christmas tune as you’ll find, with its Middle Eastern-tinged funk by way of a vintage Wurlitzer and a powerful piano-and-drum-driven chorus that would find itself at home on any proper Tori album; and Amos inserts her own brand of earthly spirituality in her revision of “Emmanuel”.
Though there are a few moments that threaten holiday sap (the winter romance of “A Silent Night with You”, and the slinky, brass-bathed tale of fireside conception, “Pink and Glitter”) there are some truly stunning moments that are not only reminiscent of, but also rank among her very best. The spare and haunting “Snow Angel” could be a lost Under the Pink b-side, and “Our New Year”, a reflection on the death of her brother, is nothing short of wrenching with its climatic string crescendo over Amos’ trembling delivery of the simple lyric “you’re not there”. Duets with her niece on “Candle: Coventry Carol” and the sweet rasp of daughter Natashya on “Holly, Ivy and Rose” add to the album’s comforting qualities.
But it is the show-stopping “Winter’s Carol” that will elate even the most cynical of listeners: on loan from her still in-progress musical The Light Princess, she personifies the changing seasons and spins a bewitching yarn of The Holly King crowning his Summer Queen and “passing the torch as it was intended”. Should you find yourself worrying that the sage, surrealist Tori may be gone, look no further… Joe Vallese
Key Track: “Winter’s Carol”
Take a Closer Look: “Snow Angel”
Watch: “Star of Wonder”
A Piano (2006)
Shaped, in a stroke of design genius, to resemble the keyboard of one of Amos’ beloved Bösendorfers, this chunky box set (courtesy of the ever-meticulous Rhino) attempts to do justice to the range of Amos’s output up to and including 2005’s The Beekeeper. “A lot of times you’re a grandmother when you get that opportunity to do the box set—or you’re dead,” Amos averred at the time. “To be current and creating, alongside putting a retrospective together, is an opportunity that you don’t always have in life.”
It’s an opportunity that the artist clearly embraced with her customary zeal and wholeheartedness. Despite a disappointing dearth of new material (there’s no such thing as enough when it comes to unearthing treasures from Amos’ vault), cover versions and live cuts, A Piano offers many delights across its five discs and 86 tracks, including an expanded (and controversially re-sequenced) Little Earthquakes and a very decent collection of B-Sides.
Of the previously unreleased songs, the taut “Take Me With You” (which Amos began in 1990 and finally completed for the box set), the deliciously unhinged slice of Pele-era madness “Walk to Dublin (Sucker Reprise)”, the rumbling Beekeeper reject “Not David Bowie” and the startling To Venus and Back outtake “Zero Point” are especially fine. Meanwhile, a demo medley bravely showcases works-in-progress; in particular, check out “Playboy Mommy”, on which it truly sounds like she’s in the process of channeling the song from another dimension. Listeners will of course have their own complaints about what’s excluded from and included on a A Piano, but overall this carefully-compiled collection attests to both the extraordinary stylistic diversity of Amos’s music and the remarkable consistency of its quality. And most importantly perhaps, it also speaks to her creative rehabilitation of the piano as a vital part of the pop-rock idiom of our time. Alex Ramon
Key Track: “Zero Point”
Take a Closer Look: “Not David Bowie”
Watch: “Peeping Tommi”
Tales of a Librarian (2003)
Never one to stand on ceremony—or miss an opportunity to flex her conceptual muscle—Amos treated her first “best of” collection with all the care and creativity of a proper studio album. Famous for regarding her songs as her “children,” Mama Tori insisted on taking the reins when Atlantic Records (with whom she had a very public split in 2001) announced it would be putting out a retrospective of her “hits.” Modeled after the Dewey Decimal system, Amos (who unsurprisingly posed as a sultry librarian in the album artwork) not only carefully curated Tales of a Librarian to encapsulate a brief musical autobiography, but she also seized the chance to revisit and revise the songs’ original master recordings.
While much of the tinkering might go unnoticed to the casual listener—string-laden tunes “Winter”, “Baker Baker”, and “Silent All These Years”, for example, have quite literally had the volume turned up on their orchestral flourishes and little else—some of the “re-imaginings”, as Amos called them at the time, were more divisive than others: the robust and epic “Spark” sees the removal of the tinny effect on the main vocal, and its acoustic guitars raised more prominently in the mix; on “Jackie’s Strength”, the absence of Steve Caton’s jangling guitar work, so effectively reminiscent of a distant radio transmission in its original form, increases the song’s creeping sentiment; and the shrill backing vocals on the seminal “Crucify” border on invasive.
But there are some welcome additions: the crisp re-mastering of “Tear in Your Hand” rejuvenates a beloved but much-heard classic; the addition of an extra Gospel choir chorus on the short but chilling “Way Down” is an unexpected delight; and the enhancement of the steel pedal guitar in “Playboy Mommy” adds an additional mournful layer to an already poignant confessional. Re-recordings of dated b-sides “Mary” and “Sweet Dreams” don’t stray much from their original incarnations but the inclusion of two new songs, “Angels”, and the long-awaited, much mythologized “Snow Cherries from France” sweeten the pot.
The real gem here, though, and perhaps most controversial, is the re-mixing of “Cornflake Girl”, which quiets Merry Clayton’s famous “and the man with the golden gun / thinks he knows so much” contribution in favor of unearthing Tori’s until-then unheard backing vocal, “Don’t close this door / I know it’s so easy.” For a project that was all about re-opening those closed doors, it’s a fitting move. Joe Vallese
Key Track: “Snow Cherries from France”
Take a Closer Look: “Cornflake Girl”
Watch: Tori on Tales:
// Notes from the Road
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