Tori Amos - American Doll Posse
You may not have heard Tori Amos's comeback single Big Wheel on the radio, despite the fact that this rollickin' take on country hoedown is her most potentially huge chart release in ages. Why no airplay then? Well, when the 42-year-old redhead straddling the piano declares 'I am an M.I.L.F./Don't you forget', no less than three times during the song's insanely catchy bridge, there's surely a danger of kiddies questioning their parents as to the meaning of this acronym. Yup, having forged an eight-album career out of tackling topics as controversial as religion, politics and (gasp, don't say it out loud) sex, the minister's daughter is back to reclaim her mantel as an essential artist after 2005's dissapointment The Beekeeper. Although I seem to have enjoyed that album more so than most fans (Barons of Suburbia rivals anything from her dense back catalogue), you can't deny that the 'adult contemporary' vibe of that album was a drastic change in direction for a songwriter who had never before shied away from venting the fire inside her. Whining fans moaned that motherhood had turned her soft (granted, Ribbons Undone is the worst thing she's put to record) and, whether or not this is a valid criticism, Amos seems to have been listening. With the release of American Doll Posse, she has decided to drop a bomb on their claims. You want the old Tori back? Well, you can have her - along with four other ladies who look a lot like her...
Meet the titular 'posse', four female archetypes derived from the Greek pantheon and allowing Amos to let rip. Amos herself is a character in all this, donning a dangerously red wig that seems to suggest she is fully aware of the concept's high-camp value and, for someone deemed sourly po-faced, very willing to take the piss out of herself. The album artwork (featuring some dazzling photos that back up Amos's M.I.L.F. claim) is dedicated to these gals 'histories', although further info can be tracked down via online blogs. The whole thing screams 'high school art project' but, thankfully, you can take or leave the extraneous stuff while still enjoying the music. And, when you have five different 'dolls' sharing the mic, the music is never less than attention-grabbing.
Isabel opens proceedings with her anti-administration Yo George, one of the best Bush-bashing songs of the last twelve months (and we all know there have been a few), disarmingly clever in its brief but brutal stand against 'the madness of King George'. Then it's straight into the aforementioned cheekiness of Tori's Big Wheel, the first of many abrupt shifts between genres and 'voices'. The fact that the songs are from the five different perspectives means the tone is often wildly different from one track to the next, not allowing for a connective thread and making the whole feel like a bit of a mish-mash. A case in point is the discordant grunge of Fat Slut sitting next to the majestic album highlight Girl Disappearing: they're not exactly the most obvious of bedfellows. However, whilst not exactly cohesive, the variation on display means this is a listen that is rarely boring, which is ultimately a good thing seeing as the album is a sprawling 80 minutes long!
Some sense of cohesion is attained by Amos's decision to infuse her gals with unique characteristics and concerns that, in turn, inform the nature of the songs. This means Pip, the brazen leather-clad hussy holding a tomahawk who is undoubtedly the wildchild of the quintet, affords Amos the opportunity to call on the anger and full-frontal sexuality that early works like Boys for Pele displayed. Teenage Hustling, an attitude-heavy glam-rock stomp that sees Tori - I mean, Pip - claiming she's 'been working it since I was fourteen', is the pick of the bunch. She's not the only femme with a bit o' fatale strung to her bow though, Santa being Amos's update of the Aphrodite template, explaining why You Can Bring Your Dog effortlessly oozes sex and class, Amoz delivering a vocal performance that draws on vintage Bowie. In fact, a good portion of the songs on the album are obviously influenced by all manner of '70s rock, from the full-on T-Rex assault of the Pip-and-Clyde (we'll come to her) duet Body and Soul by way of the almost-cheesy guitar power chords wailing away in the background of ballads like Digital Ghost and Almost Rosey. Anyone who is familiar with Amos's work will know that, despite citing Robert Plant and Zeppelin as primary influences, she has previously avoided utilising guitars and the rock 'n' roll sound of her idols - until now, that is! It's a surprising new direction and one that doesn't always work; Isabel's big anti-war statement Dark Side of the Sun suffers from a) lacking any subtlety in its central message, and b) sounding exactly like what it is: a heavy-handed and indulgent mid-tempo rocker. However, for the most part, Amos's chameleon-like shift into this territory is a welcome one, broadening her pallette while never forgetting her fans are there for the piano as much as the expected left-of-centre concepts.
So what of her trusty piano ballads? It has to be said that the up-tempo moments on this record are much more engaging this time around. Father's Son's haunting harmonies and the aforementioned Girl Disappearing's dazzling string quartet and vocal somersaults ensure these beauties are among her best work. On the other hand, we have two less memorable slowies from final member of the posse, Clyde, a broken woman who has been used and abused. Roosterspur Bridge is nothing but a wet sponge (a shame, considering its memorable lyrical lament, 'Sometimes I think, I think I understand/The fear in the boy, the fire in the man') and Beauty of Speed's dualling pianos can't save it from sounding like a lost cut from Kate Bush's Aerial album. Ah, the obligatory Bush reference. I've never seen Bush's fingerprints in Amos's work to the extent that some critics have - the kind that insist Amos should pay our very own British quirkstress a per centage of her work's royalties - but the influence can be felt on what is possibly American Doll Posse's strongest moment (and, along with Girl Disappearing, Clyde's saving grace), Bouncing Off Clouds. The vocals, the rhythm, the electro beat that underpins it all; this is Running Up That Hill for the noughties, and would make a fantastic trance or house remix to beat Arman van Helden's memorable Professional Widow remix.
The meat of the record has been examined, although Amos throws in some peculiarities that last between one and two minutes in length in an effort to round out her characters. These are a bit pick-and-mix, the jaunty brass-and-strings combo of Programmable Soda sure to infuriate as many as it delights. However, if you fall into the former camp, never fear as Amos has two surprises in store as 'bonus' tracks. Why these aren't integrated into the main body of the record is astonishing, as they are two of the most intriguing tracks present - it almost makes you wonder what gems she left behind in the studio. Dragon is a beguiling Beauty-and-the-Beast fairytale that features Amos on top lyrical form ('Don't tell me a woman did this to you'), although Smokey Joe has to take top honours for its dual Pip vocals, rivalling Amos's earlier Spark for ethereal weirdness and causing chills to run down this particular reviewer's spine when she delivers the line, 'You through black ice at the bottom of the river'.
Overall, this is a startling success for an artist who never fails to be creative in her output. It may not recapture the glory days of Under the Pink and Boys for Pele, my personal favourites, but anyone who is unsatisfied with this return to form should go and sit on the naughty step. Although she claims the eclecticism that drives this album is an exploration of the female psyche's different facets, I would argue that the diversity on display is Amos covering all bases so as not to receive the critical lashing she received from fans two years ago. I don't really care which motivation is true when it has resulted in what is definitely her best 'pop' album in at least five years. It's also heartening to see her cracking on and making fabulous music at a time when, aside from a few of her contemporaries (Kate Bush, Bjork, even Madge), the music industry only seems to value female singers who undoubtedly have a short shelf life. If they're to achieve the enduring success of Amos then these girls surely need to evoke their inner Pip. C'mon Britney, you can do it!