Strange Dialogue (11/30/2001)
Tori Amos, Strange Little Girls (Atlantic 2001) - Let's change the title of this one to Strange Little Tori. Or better yet, A Dozen Strange Little Toris.
Because that's what we have on Strange Little Girls. Tori takes 12 songs written from a male perspective and turns them around in her own moody, ethereal style. Here's an even better title - Tori Amos' Book of Murder Ballads.
If you're getting the picture that Strange Little Girls (the name comes because Tori has always called her songs "her girls") is a difficult go, you're right. By working in minor keys throughout, adding in reverb, and then diffusing her breathy vocals in the mix, Tori takes familiar songs like "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" (by the Beatles) and "Heart of Gold" (by Neil Young) and turns them into unrecognizable downers.
Wait, there's more. Tori takes a Tom Waits song ("Time"), and delivers it only with deadpan vocals and keyboard instrumentation. Now, Tom Waits is a bit of a downer to begin with. But when you strip away all of Waits' weird inflections, and work in a monochomatic pallette, you wind up with a dreary result.
Each song on Strange Little Girls is told through the eyes of a woman. Twelve songs, thirteen women (one features twins). Says Tori, "Each woman approached me and said, 'I have a point of view on this song, Tori, that you may want to know, that may change how you hear its meaning.'"
Well, the meaning of the Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays" is certainly changed when this rebellious little anti-pop track is turned into a tripped-out lament issued by Tori on Rhodes keyboards and vocals, and joined by Jon Evans on bass.
The band on Strange Little Girls consists of Tori on vocals, keyboards and Bosendorfer (a kind of electronic keyboard), Matt Chamberlain on drums, and Justin Meldal-Johnson on bass guitar and "bass painting." Joining Tori on half of the songs is Adrian Belew, contributing "string pads" and his experimental guitar sound.
The album photography by Thomas Schenk is terrific, with a dozen different shots of Tori, each in different makeup and hairstyles. If you thought Madonna could change her look, just try Tori Amos.
Explains Tori, "The men are the mothers on this one, and we all know there are some things you just don't tell your mother." That goes doubly for "'97 Bonnie & Clyde," an Eminem-penned number in which Tori uses her breathy vocals to tell a twisted story about a man who kills his wife, puts her body in the trunk of his car, then dumps the body in a lake, all witnessed by his young child. "'97 Bonnie & Clyde" has drawn controversy, but is perhaps the most effective number on the album, because Tori's breathy vocals force you to concentrate on the words.
Join Tori Amos for a strange dialogue on Strange Little Girls.
Jude, King of Yesterday (Maverick 2001) - Jude is a member of Madonna's roster on Maverick Records. With a well-rounded pop sound, King of Yesterday steers a safe course.
Jude Christodal was raised in Boston, where he says he sang in a capella groups in high school. According to Jude, "I became the swing guy. I sang all the high parts - the Brian Wilson, Eddie Kendricks stuff, but could also cover the bass in a pinch." Since moving to L.A. in 1994, Jude has become part of the music scene.
King of Yesterday is Jude's second major label release, following No One Is Really Beautiful (1998). Jude also contributed the song "I Know" to the City of Angels soundtrack. Comments Jude, "On my last record, I was holding on to my heart more tightly, I was more precious, and you know, I lived in a van. This time I decided to kiss the machine a little."
While I don't go for the confessional sound of "Red Room," I dig the swinging horns on "Everything's All Right." Also included is a respectable cover of the old Bread song, "Everything I Own." Acknowledges Jude, "It just seemed funny and kind of ridiculous to tackle that song. I mean, how do you top Bread in the first place? You're never going to beat David Gates at what he does."
Oddly, the album does not identify any musicians in the liner notes. Says Jude, "This record was a non-stop party. We started on a Monday night, crammed into a poolhouse studio with two guitars, three amps, a bass, and our backs against the wall. Over the next two weeks, friends kept stopping by to thrown down parts, sit in on drums, freestyle, or mix a track . . . That 12-day session is the disk you're holding now."
Jude continues. "The truth is, it almost didn't happen. Eight months of previous tracking had . . . met with stony silence from the label . . . I took the last ten thousand dollars the record company advanced me, called in my friends (and a few favors), got a massage, and holed up in the studio. Ten grand. Two weeks. Here you go."
It's hard to argue with an attitude like that.
Blue Rodeo, The Days In Between (Blue Rodeo 2000) - Blue Rodeo, a northern-based outfit, chimes in with their ninth album, The Days In Between. With a sound is best described as Canadian folkabilly, Blue Rodeo proves itself a well-oiled machine.
The band on The Days In Between consists of Jim Cuddy on vocals and guitar, Greg Keelor on vocals and guitar, Bazil Dunovan on bass, and Glenn Milchem on drums and percussion. Kim Deschamps was brought in to accent the sound with his pedal steel guitar.
The Days In Between was produced and engineered by Trina Shoemaker, and recorded at Kingsway Studio in New Orleans, which was the home studio of producer Daniel Lanois before he moved his operations to Teatro in Oxnard, California.
Explains frontman Jim Cuddy, "It's an amazing place. There's nothing but records made in that place. No soundtracks, no commercials, it's just a pure music place. The atmosphere you hear on Emmylou's album comes from that house in New Orleans."
The Days In Between works best when the band shifts into an up-tempo mode, on tracks like "Begging You To Let Me In" and "The Days In Between," which bring to mind the right-as-rain sound of NRBQ. Less effective are such somber blues-oriented numbers as "Bitter Fruit" and "Sad Nights."
The band understands these limitations, acknowledging that "Glenn Milchem was very critical of this record. Greg Keelor would show up with these dark, sad songs and Glenn was like, 'No! Write something more upbeat!' That happened a few times, until Keelor finally arrived with a song, 'The Days In Between.'"
Blue Rodeo is an accomplished outfit, well represented on The Days In Between.
The Syrups, Star EP (Beck Records 2001) - The Syrups are a sweet-tasting combo from Southern California that have made their name by playing in the Central Valley (jokes the band, "We're the Rock Stars of the 99 Freeway"). Star EP comes from the band's debut album, Fig. With breezy guitars and Big Star melodies, The Syrups are completely familiar with loud, fast guitars.
The Syrups consist of brothers Pat Walton (guitar) and Orion Kevin Walton (vocals), joined by pals Tommy Montes (drums) and Adam Pike (bass).
The Syrups have enjoyed considerable success in the Valley, from Bakersfield to Merced to Modesto's X-Fest. Says Pat Walton, "Our philosophy as both people and musicians is to take life one day at a time. It's like when we're writing songs, we bring in ideas, some we like, some we don't, and then we just riff until we have something that's sounding good."
The band's Valley connection is further cemented by the fact that the combo was signed to their Universal UK deal because of air play they received on Star 101.
The smart production on Star EP made me turn to the liner notes and there I found old chum Marvin Etzioni (formerly of Lone Justice, now better known as producer for Toad The Wet Sprocket) handling production duties. I hadn't heard anything from Etzioni in years, and had no clue he was associated with The Syrups, but I was drawn to the pop guitars of "Star" and "Hairdown." The Syrups are certainly worth your time, especially when they make a nearby stop.
- Randy Krbechek © 2001
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