Thursday, October 26, 2006

Tori Amos, Selections From A Piano: The Collection

Rhino has released Tori Amos' first official box set, A Piano: The Collection, and my what a large box set it is. It's comprised of 86 songs, including straight-up album selections, rare songs, B-Sides and remixes. The packaging is instantly recognizable as being associated with Tori Amos: It's grand, distinct and utterly representative of the girl from North Carolina that so many people love. In addition to the music is a song-by-song commentary by Amos, possibly making this the most comprehensive guide to understanding Amos' songwriting process and her motivation in choosing subject matter and composition.

Unfortunately, I don't have access to the whole collection for this review, so my commentary will center around twelve songs featured on the promotional release, Selections From A Piano: The Collection. It wouldn't be fair for me to try to comment on all 86 songs, but I can give you my take on what I have available.

A few of the songs (“God”, “Silent All These Years”, etc.) are the album versions; though they are integral to Amos' catalog, they're not new to the public. I'm not going to include them in the discussion (though it's hard to talk about Tori Amos without mentioning them), instead focusing on the rare cuts and alternate mixes that haven't been widely available.

“Mary”, originally found on the Crucify single (from her first record, Little Earthquakes, 1992), actually has been published as part of the collection Tales Of A Librarian (2003). I'd never heard it before Tales came out (yes, Im a shameful Tori fan. I'm a lukewarm Tori fan. She just releases so much...I'm too poor to keep up). Like a lot of Tori's songs, the chorus in “Mary” is where the song revs up the most. Her passionate vocal delivery of just the name “Mary” rattles the windows (well, my windows, anyway. I live in an old building, though). The strength of her playing makes me wonder how often she has to change out the piano keys. Like a lot of her lyrics, it's difficult to tell just from the words who she's talking about; if it's a fictional character used to create a story or if she's talking about a person/historical character. Whoever Mary is, people are making a lot of demands on her.

I unfortunately didn't get any of the demo versions featured in the collection. I would've loved to have heard the demo of “A Sorta Fairytale” and “Beautyqueen”. My abbreviated copy is made up of several alternate mixes and remixes, though. “Baker Baker”, originally from Under The Pink, gets an orchestral treatment here (violins!), instead of the minimal piano on the album version. The song is beautiful in whatever form (well, I don't know if I'd like a polka mix or a version done by a Japanese punk band...), but the added orchestration adds a flourish that certainly doesn't top the original (c'est impossible!), but serves as a wonderful companion piece (which is the purpose of an alternate mix).

“Flying Dutchman”, AKA the “take a trip on a rocket ship” song, is as quirky as the original. The song was originally on the “China” single (the CD tells me so, but if every in doubt, check here). The original starts out with very soft, light piano strokes, then Tori's precise vocals come in and almost dance over the melody. I'm not sure if the version I already had was the original B-Side, but I can't tell much of a difference--the two versions seem very similar to me. The style of the song in both versions has the crispness of the Little Earthquakes/Under The Pink era. Tori's arrangements became more complex beginning with her third album, Boys For Pele. This is one of the least vocally acrobatic of her songs, but that's not a criticism of the song. It just means that not every Tori song is a showcase for her amazing vocal range. Sometimes the song itself is the star. The lyrics are as obtuse and unscrutible as ever: one line includes the statement “your brain is a comic book tattoo.” Sure, I know exactly what that means...Musically, the instrumentation, like on many of her songs, is sparse. A horn glides in to augment the piano, but other than that, she's sparing with the accompaniment.

It's hard for me to believe that From The Choirgirl Hotel was released eight years ago, but it was published in 1998. I have a huge wall-size poster of the album cover. Alas, my wall is void of it because it's too heavy for me to hang. From The Choirgirl Hotel makes an appearance in this collection. “Playboy Mommy” is included in a remixed form. I won't lie: the original was never one of my favorite Tori songs. The horn sounds like it was provided courtesy of Casio (no offense to the horn player; it probably had more to do with the sound mix). The melody doesn't stretch beyond the monotonous piano line, and vocally the melody doesn't stray far from the middle ground she's settled. The song's just never grabbed me that much. The new version mercifully doesn't sound as Casio-fied (yay for new production!), but the song's still not as dynamic as her other music.

Besides “Playboy Mommy”, another track from this album is offered as an alternate take. Again, this isn't one of my favorites. “Cruel” is Tori's version of a Madonna song. Heavily produced, the vocals are distorted and the instrumental focus is a series of electronic disco beats. A lot of people really like this side of Tori Amos; I'm not knocking these songs at all. I just know that this particular style is not my preferred style. Give me banshee Tori any day, or reflective Tori. The new version is a little cleaner; less distorted, but still disco-ish. The percussion (which I like) is a little more pronounced in this remix.

“Sugar” is another B-Side from the single “China”. I hadn't heard this in more than ten years, but I'd remembered thinking this was an absolutely beautiful song. This version is no different in that respect. The lyrics are almost inscrutable as many of her lyrics are; the chorus is the phrase “sugar...she brings me sugar”, and she talks about robins bringing her things. Tori fans long ago got used to lyrics that don't lend themselves easily to deciphering. The music can never be questioned, though. The piano is a sparse, ghostly line and her voice whispers and then crackles with all the emotion she would infuse even her most personal song. There is a light keyboard part in the background, but it never overpowers her voice or the rest of the music.

“Take To The Sky (Russia)” is a B-Side from “Winter”, another Little Earthquakes single. Most of the song is a piano-pounding (literally—I've seen her play it in concert—she pounds on the piano), jazzy, and relatively straight-forward. Then for a few short moments the banshee comes out. Tori's voice climbs, crescendos and twists back around. All too briefly, she includes one of her signature rounds with herself, where her voice is interspersed with another recording of herself singing a different line. The result is exhilerating, and very representative of Tori's signatures sounds.

It's very difficult for me to evaluate the entire collection without hearing all 86 songs (I do accept donations—just kidding), but the selections I was given are probably very indicative of the whole of the collection: a mixture of already available (though classic) album cuts, alternate mixes that sharpen and redefine the originals and B-Sides that show that even the compositions that don't make the cut can be quintessentially beautiful and unique additions to Amos' roster.

Rather than spending money on the dozens of illegal bootlegs out there (which I've done before) and instead of hunting for the songs on the internet individually (which I would never, ever do..pinkie swear. Cross my heart and hope to ...ah, whatever), this looks to be a worthy purchase for any Tori Amos fan. The packaging alone is gorgeous. A casual fan may want to work on getting the individual albums first (there are enough to make up a few of these collections), but if you have the money, it would not be wasted on this particular set.

~~Lola Lariscy

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