Tori Amos: American Doll Posse

Tori Amos
American Doll Posse

For the occasion of the release of her ninth studio album (her third with new label Epic), singer-songwriter-turned-towering-concept princess Tori Amos has birthed five personas — the titular “dolls” of American Doll Posse: “Pip”, “Santa”, “Isabel”, “Clyde”, and “Tori”. Each girl has her own specific wardrobe (Unconditional and La Petite Salope will be among the ladies’ couturiers), hair and make-up and her own catalogue of songs on the record. The character of “Tori” even dons a red wig.

The ladies have a lot on their minds, but mainly, American Doll Posse is a record that wants to know why we are at war, and what we are going to do to clean up our mess. Amos has always questioned the patriarchal authority, but this time she actually begins a record with a song called “Yo, George”; a finger-pointing 90-second interlude obviously directed at our commander-in-chief that asks if we are living in the age of “the madness of King George”. From there, she really lets it rip.

Humanistic politics are engrained in many of the songs: “Almost Rosey” is a clear war-time anthem, with vaguely activist lyrics like “When I hear of one more bomb / We have all been robbed of song / And nightingales who throw their arms up / When is enough enough?”, but there is also a lot of “classic Tori” present: gorgeous string quartet arrangements courtesy of John Phillip Shenale (on the Leonard Cohen-esque “Girl Disappearing”), a touch of humor (on the raucous stomper of a single “Big Wheel”, where Tori actually refers to herself as a “MILF”), and a smattering of keyboard instruments (Bosendorfer, electric piano, Clavichord, Wurlitzer, Meletron) all played by Amos, often simultaneously. While the tempo is more brisk than previous Amos slow-burners, the big surprise here comes from the shocking use of guitar — both electric and acoustic.

“Body and Soul”, a schizophrenic, frenetic “duet” between Pip and Santa, is a muscular track that stands among Amos’s career-best attempts at a full-out proper rock and roll song. The “girl and her piano” myths about Amos should be put to rest once and for all: the woman is fully capable of letting her keys fall by the wayside and allowing a monster guitar riff to take center stage. Then there is the full-tilt, sex-drenched swagger of “Teenage Hustling”, a track that begins innocently enough on the piano and then builds to a sonic assault on all the corporate lackeys who have ever doubted Amos; she has, after all, been “in the business” since she was 14. Any music executive who wants to get between Amos and her music in the future might want first give this song a listen for a taste of what a pissed-off “girl with a piano” is gifted enough to pull off. These particular tracks re-invigorate Amos’s catalogue with their inventive, sometimes shocking use of guitars and effects.

Credited to “Mac Aladdin” (it is rumored that this is a pseudonym for Amos’s husband and sound engineer Mark Hawley), the guitar work on Posse sometimes verges dangerously into 1980s hair metal territory (sort of like Tori’s debut band, Y Kant Tori Read, as a matter of fact). There are little blues riffs that are harmless cheese, as if Tori was trying to capture an “edgy” sound, but couldn’t quite get there (most notably on the track “You Can Bring Your Dog”, which is still superior to most pop guitar jams currently being produced). Most of the time, though, the guitar work (which dominates Tori’s piano at times) is a nice nod to the great rock and roll bands of the 1970s: The Stooges, Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, the Beatles, and Queen (“Digital Ghost” boasts a gloriously guitar-zapped bridge that is as close to arena rock as Tori has ever gotten). There is an air of opera-rock all throughout.

If it sounds like Tori has become the ultimate drag queen version of herself, that is because it is partly true: musically, this record’s closest kin would have to be the soundtrack for John Cameron Mitchell’s expert musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. There is a cabaret element on Tori’s record, as well as a cheeky sense of humor (if you don’t believe me, there is a thirty second interlude called “Fat Slut”), that permeates and lifts spirits. Short, playful tunes like “Velvet Revolution” even ape Eastern European flair with gypsy-jazz-esque mandolins jangling in the distance, while “Secret Spell” sounds like a life lesson from a woman who has seen it all.

The video for “Big Wheel”, which introduces the Posse characters, plays out in hysterically wry fashion: each woman vamps and shakes while winking at the camera. It is a very natural progression for the singer, who is always keen on discussing her love of musicals (from The Sound of Music to Mary Poppins). While at first glance it is shockingly theatrical for someone who is mainly known for being a confessional prodigy, it is also a nice change.

For her world tour this summer, Amos plans on embarking on a dramatic production of gargantuan proportions. Each night she will appear as one of the posse on stage for the beginning of the show, and midway through, “Tori” will take over. For those who know how Amos’s raw, invigorating live show unfolds, this is a considerable shock. She is doing a multi-media extravaganza. It’s a stroke of genius that she will play as different characters — Tori has fans that follow her tours the world over, and this will ensure they get a unique experience each time. She is really giving her fans what they want, more than almost any other artist working.

It’s a bold maneuver on Tori’s part to ask her oft-discussed fan base to take this leap of faith with her, but it will be rewarding for those with a little bit of vision — not to mention it will ensure that shrewd marketer Amos will move a lot units and fill seats at her upcoming shows. She hasn’t had this good of a gimmick in years.

Tori has a habit of getting lost in this sort of conceptual record, but she capably delivers every style of music her fans have come to expect from her on Posse. It is a little bit of everything she does well: rock, ballads, etc. Also, since her departure from Atlantic to Epic, she has displayed a keen sense for crafting some of the most pleasant pop of her career. “Big Wheel” may be a bit honky-tonky for the casual Amos fanatic, but at its heart, it is just a fun romp. As Amos sneers “Baby, I don’t need your cash / Mama’s got it all in hand”, you can practically mop the sarcasm up off the floor. Amos gets the reputation of being supremely self-serious and reverent; people forget she is a funny woman with a razor-sharp sense of humor.

After her last major releases (full length studio albums Scarlet’s Walk and The Beekeeper; and the archival Tales of a Librarian and A Piano), Amos faced criticism from fans and music critics for being a little too prolific. Scarlet and Beekeeper were both 18-plus tracks, buried in towering high-concepts (which revolved around things like “The Corn Mother” and her infinite mystique). Each record boasted an Amos who was changed by motherhood into a softer, more crowd-pleasing artist (who wrote syrupy ditties like the garbage of “Ribbons Undone” from Beekeeper, which disturbingly featured a lyric about her “little pony growing up fast”). Her once edgy sound was replaced with something tamer, and many fans were worried that their beloved goddess of angst was gone forever.

In Posse‘s closer, “Dragon”, Amos is at her absolute finest: vocals up front and center, fairytale piano straight out of a Brothers Grimm piece, and a creepy-crawly sensibility that mixes with a pristine, almost cutesy tone. It’s the kind of delicate balance that has been sorely lacking in Amos’s recent output, and anyone who thought she couldn’t pull this sort of epic off any longer should be properly impressed. It is a track that stands among her all-time best compositional work.

There are moments of jaw-dropping virtuosity on American Doll Posse, the kind of moments Tori’s fans live for: unexpected vocal layering and harmonies, piano lines driven home at break-neck speed, and an overall sound that is everything and the kitchen sink. Vocally, after her last two releases, there were whispers of Amos losing her edge — she wasn’t hitting the impossible high notes of her Little Earthquakes days, and this alarmed many listeners.

The worried Toriphiles should be able to rest easy now: Amos’s vocal work on Posse is some of her most accomplished (she has rarely sounded as assured as she does on the mercurial “Beauty of Speed” — a track that melds the music with her voice seamlessly). In “Father’s Son”, Amos muses “So the desert blooms / Strawberry cactus / Can you blame nature / If she’s had enough of us”, proving that lyrically (after the disastrous, saccharine missteps on Beekeeper), she is back in top form after the constraints of her previous two albums’ gargantuan concepts bogged down her gift for using language as a sharp-edged weapon. Few songwriters can turn a phrase quite as compellingly (and literately) as the singer.

Tori hasn’t been as relaxed as she is on Posse since her brilliant, underrated 1999 release, To Venus and Back, an album that came and went without much fanfare. On Venus, Amos let the music, in all of its refreshingly technology-soaked glory, take center stage. Her playfulness showed through with her use of effects on her voice and her decision to distort her piano — which makes the comparison of tracks like the turbulent “Code Red” to Venus tracks the most logical connection to her previous cannon. Many of the Posse tracks could be easily placed on this more experimental album. It seems as though Tori’s regimented control of her sound has suffered from a lack of looseness. With the concepts taking over the show, the music felt a little bit contrived on recent outings, but with Posse, Amos seems to be exhaling deeply.

Amos has employed a cadre of off-the-beaten-path sound in her palette that will disarm the casual listener. At first, it is jarring to go from the jagged transition between the noise of “Fat Slut” into the pomp of “Girl Disappearing”, but Amos is a master of evoking an array of emotions and atmospheres. It is obvious after listening to the new album that the veteran and her crackerjack team of musicians (Matt Chamberlain on percussion and Jon Evans on bass) are at their improvisational, loose best. From the sinister, moody crawl of “Smokey Joe” to the shimmering electro-strut of the effervescent “Bouncing Off Clouds”, the band is in tip-top shape, ready for whatever challenge their task mistress, Amos, throws their way.

For someone who essentially lives in a hermetically-sealed musical world (she resides in the bucolic southern English countryside with her husband and daughter, and works generally with the same collaborators on each project), Amos does a nice job of making a relevant record. She is a middle-aged woman, taking risks and still selling her product. What would benefit her even more, if she’s feeling adventurous next time, is the hiring of an outside producer and editor to curtail her sometimes excessive thematic scope. If Posse is any indication, she is game for anything.

If American Doll Posse would have been edited into a shorter, more concise record (which would have been easy to do — starting with cutting four or five of the “short songs”), it could have been Amos’s best. Instead, it fits nicely alongside her best work, but is a little bit too bogged down with its sometimes preachy, non-descript politics and too many of the usual suspects in the mix (such as the alt-country-influenced ballad “Roosterspur Bridge” and the trite “Devils and Gods” — tracks that deflate the overall structure of the rest of the well-built record). But kudos must be given to the lady for having the guts to start doing high concept performance art at this stage of her already illustrious career.

Tori has made a career of being “Tori”: the personal, confrontational spitfire with a talent as big as her voice. “Tori” is still all over this record, she is just well-hidden by her concepts and her characters; her writing and composition talents are at the forefront. People seem to forget that underneath all of her weaves and slick surfaces, Amos is an exemplary writer and storyteller at heart. She is obviously game to tackle anything and her talent for executing big, unfamiliar sounds is staggering. It’s refreshing to see work from a woman over 40 that is unafraid to challenge governmental policy and corporate marauding, as well as her own unconventional place in pop culture.

Amos produces a wholly relevant musical document that exists as both a nice companion piece to a world on the brink of cataclysmic disaster, but also as a bright-eyed, cautiously optimistic re-affirming of human nature. American Doll Posse also functions separately, as a testament to Amos’s skill and longevity as a performer. There is a myriad of theoretical hoo-ha and mystical bullshit that comes along with every Amos release, but if you can disregard the ephemera and get past “the pantheon of goddesses” (from which Amos appropriates her feminine archetypes), there is an album of excellent pop, astute industry commentary, and flirty intentions begging to be discovered. Amos accomplishes this all while sporting Christian Louboutin heels, couture dresses, and full make-up, to boot. What more can you ask for as a fan? Besides the return of Boys for Pele‘s harpsichord, or a duet with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, that is?

RATING 8 / 10
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