Tori Amos
from the choirgirl hotel 
Label: Atlantic 
Genre: Alternative 
File Under: Bigger earthquakes 
Rating: 80 

The use of one's art as a therapist's couch could hardly be considered something new under the sun, but few performers of the modern-rock era unburden themselves in a manner as simultaneously visceral and willfully obscure as does Tori Amos. After all, it was Amos who wrote so chillingly about being raped in "Me and a Gun," a song from 1992's quirky, yet deeply affecting, Little Earthquakes. On from the choirgirl hotel, her fourth solo album, Amos wastes little time in revealing dark secrets: "Spark," the lead track and first single, deals with her miscarriage and the wrenching doubts—about her femininity, her humanity, and God—left in its wake. Except for one painfully cogent verse—"She's convinced she could hold back a glacier/ But she couldn't keep baby alive/ Doubting if there's a woman in there somewhere/ Here"—the song is a series of lyrical blind alleys about "Trusting my soul to the ice cream assassin" and being addicted to nicotine patches. Say what? 

Yet somehow the little girls—and the big girls who make up Amos's core audience—understand. After all, in her songs that are alternately assertive and self-excoriating, Amos is a bitch, she's a lover, she's a child, she's a mother—but never in such pedestrian terms. Amos is not so much a one-woman Lilith Fair as she is the modern-day embodiment of Lilith herself—an alternative Earth mother who is standing at the ready when Plan A goes horribly awry. 

On choirgirl hotel, Amos sometimes preaches to the choir itself, addressing women's frustration and rage in songs like "Black-Dove (January)" (which, however obliquely, addresses abuse) and "Jackie's Strength" (which turns JFK's assassination into a song about feminine endurance), yet casually lets drop lines like "You're only popular with anorexia." While such sentiments will surely bring knowing nods from Amos's established host of fans, there's more than enough here to hook newcomers, and maybe even skeptics. This time out, it seems that Amos can meander through the set-ups however long she wants, but when she gets to the punch lines, the effect is devastating. In "Northern Lad," a song about a relationship gone sour, it's this: "Girls you've got to know/ When it's time to turn the page/ When you're only wet/ Because of the rain." In "Raspberry Swirl," she's even more succinct: "If you want inside her/ Well, boy you better make her raspberry swirl." Now there's a message that needs no decoding. 

One of the primary reasons choirgirl hotel connects is the music. On previous albums, Amos has been content to focus on her piano and her voice—formidable forces, to be sure, but, when coupled with her dark-side-of-the-moon lyrical bent, the results were often numbing or obtuse. On the new album, the songs are driven by a full band, and the spirit of collaboration and experimentation with up-to-date sounds and loop-happy techniques positively invigorates the music. 

But this is no calculated electronica move, no craven attempt to keep Amos current at any cost: Ebbing trip-hop rhythms are used judiciously on songs like "Cruel" and "Liquid Diamonds," while shifting time signatures and textures add intrigue to the techno-inspired "Hotel" and the simmering, sinuous "Iieee," which explodes into a caustic full-metal attack. Over it all, Amos's voice swoops and soars, and when she does step up to do a ballad—say "Jackie's Strength" or "Northern Lad"—the contrast pushes the emotions of survival and betrayal to new levels. And for once, it all seems to make sense. Despite the occasional lyrical daftness that has plagued past efforts, the sign outside the choirgirl hotel proudly blinks: No Vacancy.
Daniel Durchholz

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