Critical Distance: Who Got It Right For Tori Amos’ Thundering, Major Label Debut ‘Little Earthquakes’?

08.21.17 10 months ago 2 Comments

Atlantic Records

With first albums, there’s a temptation to fold history back like a map. We can see how it turned out, so why not take what we know, place it back at the beginning, and see if anything lines up? But when Tori Amos released her first solo album, Little Earthquakes, in 1992 — after one album as the singer and songwriter for pop-rock band Y Kant Tori Read — how many people knew what Amos was capable of? Did she?

Stephanie Zacharek, writing in Entertainment Weekly, did not find capabilities worth measuring. Alongside a D grade, Zacharek wrote that Amos’s “songs are too self-consciously weird, like the gnarled wax candles produced in droves by ’70s art students who read too much Tolkien.” Zacharek also quotes a fantastic line from “Tear In Your Hand” — “me and Charles Manson like the same ice cream” — as if she found it wanting. Zacharek’s review gets five bananaphones anyway, because yes — Amos is comfortable with the florid, so Tolkien is not irrelevant. (Zacharek also notes that Amos thanks “the Faeries” in the acknowledgments, which you can verify by looking at the end of the original CD booklet.)

But there is some history folding in my response here. That a critic could dismiss a major label act without fear is a thing to be nostalgic for. Yes, Amos was a semi-unknown coming off a flop and hardly a bargaining chip for Atlantic, but still. Now there would be a barrage of tweets and a call for walkback after a review like this. Be like Zacharek, and Amos, and be not afraid.

Jean Rosenbluth’s blurb in The Los Angeles Times ends on: “Now solo, she’s delivered a quixotic, compelling record that mixes the smart sensuality of Kate Bush with the provocative impenetrability of Mary Margaret O’Hara.” Which says enough. Kate Bush is brought up almost every time a woman approaches a piano or sings with vibrato or abandons predictable verse lengths. With Amos, though, Bush is more appropriate than Tolkien in terms of affective slant. Bush and Amos often match their words to melodies and arrangements that emphasize what is going on, as in musical theater (or EDM). This approach does not fit in with the deadpan rock of the kool youths and their plastik shades; Amos rarely resists a check this out right here flourish. Rosenbluth is also right to place O’Hara at the scene, though, because Amos doesn’t always need her words to be as gothic as her forms. She likes the off-hand and demotic as much as Randy Newman, though you’ll miss that if you only listen for drama.

Cheating slightly (but better that pieces be online and available for review): in 2001, Irin Carmon looked back on several Amos albums for the Village Voice. Little Earthquakes was “a diary of naked emotion that earned her an army of acolytes.” Carmon’s take on the aughts vs. the nineties resonates. “Once upon a decade, a girl had her pick of impassioned and inventive women who were safely subversive yet still spoke to her experience. Lured by mainstreaming alt-soul divas, the latest crop of girls on the cusp of adolescence probably won’t look to the same outlets of solo passion.” (I am assuming “alt-soul” didn’t mean the Beyoncé of “Survivor” and “Bootylicious,” both hits in 2001, both impassioned and inventive.)

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