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Conversation pieces
Tori Amos in song and otherwise
BY MATT ASHARE

Depending upon who you read, Tori Amosís new The Beekeeper (Epic) either "floats by without stirring much interest" (Onion), has "very little tension and too much vocal masturbation going on" (popmatters.com), is "underwritten" and "underproduced" (rollingstone.com), or amounts to "her most down-to-Earth album in years" (New York Times). I could go on, quoting from reviews that would seem to be critiquing different albums. But nine albums into a career that began almost 15 years ago, with the release of Little Earthquakes (Atlantic), a bold debut that offered the autobiographical a cappella "Me and a Gun" as well as lyrics like "So you can make me come/That doesnít make you Jesus," Tori Amos has teamed up with a senior music critic to offer her own interpretation of Tori Amos in book form. Itís called Tori Amos: Piece by Piece (Broadway Books), and if you havenít already essayed its labyrinthine passages, letís just say thatís an amusingly simple title for a complex series of discussions between Amos and Ann Powers thatís subtitled A Portrait of the Artist, Her Thoughts, Her Conversations. These conversations, which touch on enough Jungian archetypes to send Joseph Campbell running for cover and explore Gnosticism with a glee generally reserved for devotees of The Da Vinci Code, are interspersed with straightforward reflections by the people Amos has surrounded herself with over the years, from drummer Matt Chamberlain and bassist Jon Evans, to lighting designer Dan Boland and security director Joel Hopkins.

Anyone hoping for an explication of The Beekeeper here would do better to consult the short biography at www.toriamos.com, where Amos reveals that she approached her previous album, 2002ís Scarletís Walk (Epic), "from the Native American part of my bloodline," only to return to the religion of her Methodist minister father on The Beekeeper "to address the severing that was happening in America itself. . . . " Now those are concepts I can at least get my mind around. And I thought The Beekeeper was a reference to the Sylvia Plath poem "The Beekeeperís Daughter," from a series of what Plath enthusiasts have come to refer to as the "bee poems." (Plath was indeed the daughter of a beekeeper.)

Some of the other important touchstones that come into play on The Beekeeper, which is divided into six parts that Amos refers to as gardens in the larger "Garden of Original Sinsuality," are terrorism, orange knickers, a Saab automobile, Elaine Pagelsís The Gnostic Gospels, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and the entire Nag Hammadi library of ancient writings that was discovered in Egypt in 1945. So if youíve analyzed Plathís poetry, changed the oil (or at least a flat tire) on a Saab, and seen the immensely silly documentary The Da Vinci Code Decoded, then youíre all set. Reviewing, much less listening, to pop music shouldnít be this difficult. As Mick and Keith so famously noted, "Itís only rock and roll . . . "

The good news is, it isnít all that difficult. Yes, Amos, who splits her time between Great Britain and the US, and grew up, as the book says, with both Native American spirituality and Methodist values, may enjoy consulting obscure sources in order to feed her muse. And as a classically trained pianist who first struck out on her own in LA fronting the hard-rock band Y Canít Tori Read, she has more than just rock and roll coursing through her musical veins. Itís that combination that can lead her down obscure paths to precious constructs like "Original Sinsuality," one of The Beekeeperís more abstract piano-and-vocal-based arrangements. At the same time, "Witness," with its funky Hammond organ groove and bluesy cadences, seems to have more Marvin Gaye than Nag Hammadi in it. And in spite of its references to terrorism, "The Power of Orange Knickers" (which has Damien Rice on backing vocals) is a pleasant little pop song with a catchy vocal melody, a driving beat, and an alluring sexual undercurrent.

Amos doesnít like to talk about her songs, at least not in any straightforward way ó which may explain how she and Powers can carry on 350 pages of "conversations." Amos is more interested in what led her to write this song or that, and particularly the often cryptic lyrics. But when I reach her over the phone on her way to one of the final rehearsals for the "Original Sinsuality Tour," which hits the Orpheum this Tuesday, she does allow that "the cryptic ones might even be the ones that are the most personal. I also hope thereís humor in what I do. But it doesnít always get through."

Like, orange knickers? "Well, I wanted to write a song about terrorists. Itís a word thatís been used and misused a lot in the last few years. Therefore, sometimes to emancipate a word, you have to undress it. And as I started to undress it, I found a lot of things there. And if you start exploring it, all the correlations and just the word associations, you might get certain images in your mind."

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Issue Date: April 8 - 14, 2005
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