Tori celebrates 20 years in the business with a fairly lacklustre reworking of old and new favourites recorded with the Metropole Orchestra
If you’re a Tori Amos fan, or you were a Tori Amos fan, you may be familiar with the current struggle between fans who prefer Amos’s earlier body of work versus those who favour her more recent body of work. Both sides of the debate will agree that in and around the time of Scarlet’s Walk there was a clear dissection, where most loyal fans who stuck with her from the beginning have found it difficult to swallow the sometimes trite and schmaltzy tendencies of her later work, versus those who are recently discovering her who believe that new is always better and her musical veracity is growing with age. Regardless, the landscape of being a Tori Amos fan is a tumultuous one. If you preferred her early work, you’ll feel betrayed at Amos’ backpedaling and abandonment of everything she once stood for, and you’ll be told by her current fans to “jump ship” and “stop listening” to the one artist you adored for over a decade. Whereas, if you prefer her current work, you’ll be faced with “purists” telling you that what she’s doing now pales in comparison to the genius of what she produced in the 90s, even though your connection to her is rooted in her most recent projects. Basically, there’s old Tori Amos and then there’s new Tori Amos, and the two have a difficult time living in symbiosis.
With the dawn of Amos’s masterpiece debut Little Earthquakes reaching it’s 20th anniversary, she has decided to re-record her favourite tracks spanning her career from that fateful 1992 debut to 2009’s holiday-themed Midwinter Graces. All of this with the Metropole Orchestra. The result is, like Amos’ complete body of work, a mixed bag. Gold Dust is meant to stand as a commemoration of that 1992 groundbreaking debut, encapsulating her entire 20-year career in a way that unintentionally suggests that her career is over. It’s an odd project choice to celebrate a release from 20 years ago when most artists would simply reissue that first record with a bunch of new fan-pleasing bells and whistles, but it is what it is and Amos is in no way like most other artists.
The album begins with the reworking of the maudlin "Flavor" from her forgettable 2009 album Abnormally Attracted to Sin. It’s a slight improvement on a boring song, and ironically feels like a pretty bland flavor in comparison to her more involved work. Things start to spiral downwards with the incredibly bizarre and muted rendition of the classic "Yes, Anastasia" from her 1994 sophomore album Under the Pink. The original featured a dramatic string arrangement that ringed with intensity. On Gold Dust however, in addition to lopping the song in half, the entire orchestration feels muted as if Amos isn’t comfortable with it overshadowing her inability to sing the song properly anymore–as is evidenced when she gets to the crowd pleasing "We’ll seeeeeeeeeeeeee" moment. It’s stunted. However, in all fairness most people in their 50s can’t vocally achieve what they did in their early 30s, so we can forgive this inability that is beyond Amos’ control. But we may not be able to forgive her for her lazy production choices that essentially butcher the beautiful "Cloud on My Tongue". The track features ridiculous doubled-vocals that effectively turn a once serene and simultaneously chaotic bridge section into a southern-accented mess. In the original, when Amos sings “Circles and circles and circles again”, it’s hushed and suggestive and wonderful. Here that moment is jarring, hardening her delivery, making it "CERckles and CERckles and CERckles again" -- fundamentally ruining the best moment in the song. With this irreverent treatment of old favourites, things aren’t looking good for this supposed celebration.
Things do begin to shift slightly with the fairly interesting rendition of "Precious Things", a permanent fixture in Amos’s repertoire and a song that has seen a number of incarnations during the course of her 20-year career. This new treatment is fairly intriguing as most fans are used to "Precious Things" being a big-band number. It’s nice to hear the tune conceived in this way, not necessarily replacing the original version, but accenting different intensities in the song that you may not have previously heard. It’s one of the few moments where the album achieves what it was meant to achieve and it’s as fresh an undertaking as this song is going to get. The title track "Gold Dust" is exactly the same as it was on Scarlet’s Walk -- overly dramatic and sometimes too sappy, but it doesn’t worsen the effect. "Star of Wonder" (a track that this author has a personal vendetta against) follows, and is fairly enjoyable more because of it’s pop sensibilities than anything that’s done here.
The complete turn begins with a beautiful rendition of “Winter” and continues through with the beloved b-side "Flying Dutchman", (you have my permission to skip over the utterly ridiculous "Programmable Soda"), Tales of a Librarian’s "Snow Cherries From France", Boys for Pele’s "Marianne" and back to Little Earthquakes with "Silent All These Years". They serve as the highlight of this vanity project and ultimately save it from being a complete waste of money. However, it becomes increasingly clear with more and more listens that the entire album, save for "Flavor", "Precious Things" and possibly "Snow Cherries From France" could have been arranged for orchestra by even the most casual of Tori Amos listeners. There is nothing shockingly different or challenging about the song choices as the majority of them were originally conceived to be accompanied by orchestra. For an artist that likes to praise herself for continuously challenging her musical capabilities, she sure as hell chose the path of least resistance.
And therein lies the problem with Gold Dust. What and who is this for, precisely? Amos herself has said it’s a commemoration of her 20 years in the business, but for the most part only serves as a reminder that the original versions of these tracks are a hell of a lot better (save for “Flavor”). The album is also in many ways a continuation of the 2011 classical
rip-off inspired Night of Hunters, but is in no ways as intricate or involved. And unfortunately, much like the conundrum that Amos fans find themselves in, Gold Dust as a whole is also split right down the middle, with half of it being interesting and a pleasure to listen to with nice reworkings of old classics or new favourites, while the other half is in many ways an offensive and superfluous mess with lazy production techniques and baffling song choices. The outcome with a release like this, while it would seemingly please both sets of fans, will most likely be forgotten with the onset of her next completely original effort. The quagmire that Amos finds herself in is that pleasing both sets of fans is a fruitless task, and every effort is better spent in one direction or the other.