“On my way up north, up on the Ventura. I pulled back the hood and I was talking to you. I knew then it would be a life long thing.” So begins “A Sorta Fairytale” on singer/songwriter/producer Tori Amos’ most recent release, Scarlet’s Walk.
What can be written about Amos that hasn’t already been written, said and rumored in her decade-long flirtation with pop culture iconoclasm? She has been praised, savagely critiqued, vaulted as the new age goddess-cum-messiah by her frenzied and loyal fans (a “Mrs. Jesus,” as another cut on her new album attests). One young man recently asked me after learning I was writing this review, “Does she still fuck her piano?” Only Amos could possibly ever be accused of something so oblique.
Recent critiques have questioned her integrity after her new merger with Epic Records, a record company whose marketing plan includes aggressive “street” selling. It also includes expanded packaging for its artists’ releases: “limited edition” trinkets, spoken-word CDs and DVDs. It does seem initially odd for an artist whose outside-the-mainstream status is cemented by her music’s decidedly non-radio-friendly construction.
But is this Amos? In the very least, consumers should recognize that record companies’ self-proclaimed desperate times are deserving of desperate measures, and what is so terrible about a music video included with the CD for two dollars more? Regardless of Amos, this is the new standard in the record business. Hipsters, self-afflicted with irony and feigned intellectualism, will just have to get used to it, and besides it provides more ammunition for the weapon of hipster choice – an accusation of “selling out.”
Again, though, where is the music in all this? In Amos’s case, it is front and center of a remarkable new album chronicling a saga of, literally, American proportions.
Scarlet’s Walk documents the “real-life” journey of Amos taking it to the heartland of Florida, D.C., New York, California, Oregon and every state in-between. Her much talked about muses (she calls her compositions by feminine pronoun) become the distances between national locales and quintessentially American ideas of expansion, domination, magnitude, regret and nostalgia.
Wrapped in these bleeding stars and stripes, Amos uses unearthly imagery, complex piano patterns, a sweeping string ensemble and Matt Chamberlain’s driving rhythms to comment on American settlement of Native American homelands (“Wampum Prayer”). She sings and plays of fantasy sliding away in the trajectory of a convertible (“A Sorta Fairytale”), and voices silenced by roaring jet engines in the “hunting ground” of New York (“I Can’t See New York”).
Other compositions invoke not only place, but also eras of American music. “Crazy” takes the bluesy musings of early country/western music and layers in a shot of early-crossover Kate Bush. “Don’t Make Me Come to Vegas” places a stratum of drunken drums with gospel regret, stating, “Don’t make me come to Vegas, don’t make me pull you out of his bed.” Ending the album, “Gold Dust” captures the sentience of physical landscapes merging into musical, with Amos arguably delivering the most emotionally unrestrained and effective song of her career, which is really saying something.
Tori Amos brings the “Scarlet’s Walk” world tour to the University of Portland’s Chiles Center on Dec. 11. The show begins at 8 p.m. For tickets, visit fastixx.com.