“I guess you go too far/When pianos try to be guitars,” muses Tori Amos at one point on her fourth album. The song (“Northern Lad”) laments an affair gone sour, so only Amos’ therapist or close friends will comprehend the reference. But given the unusual ways in which Amos’ mind works, the line does make a certain amount of sense in terms of her career.
After the verbal histrionics and heavy-pedal pounding of 1996’s “Boys for Pele,” the comparatively subdued and improved “from the choirgirl hotel” finds Amos more grounded, even if it’s still hard to determine her particular planet of origin.
Like many a white pop star in these post-rock days, Amos has discovered the power of divergent beats and textures. For a good chunk of “from the choirgirl hotel,” she nestles her piano and melodies in the sinewy thump, junkyard-clank percussion, and guitar noir of trip-hop. And what an ideal match: Amos’ vocal quirks, trills, and orgasmic-soprano moans add personality to what can often be dull music. (Compared with Amos, Portishead vocalist Beth Gibbons comes across like a corpse.) The result — slithery sulks like “cruel” and “spark,” the techno shuffle of the subtly erotic “Raspberry Swirl” — is some of Amos’ most beguiling music. Other, less drastic twists help too: A pedal steel guitar adds a mournful sigh to “playboy mommy,” on which a floozy sings a creepy, regret-drenched lullaby to her dead child.
Amos’ lyrical excesses are a little more difficult to tame. “Jackie?s Strength” links JFK?s assassination, a David Cassidy lunch box, and Amos’ own recent wedding day — and that?s one of her more coherent songs. But for once, her creative writhing receives the sculpted setting it deserves. We may never fully understand what torments Amos, but at least she?s making her yearnings easier on the ears. B+