American Doll Posse
At nearly 80 minutes and 23 songs long, Tori Amos' latest epic CD holds a little something for everyone, which is both its strength and its weakness.
On first blush, my impression was that this was another Boys For Pele (her third CD) -- an album drowning in itself, desperately in need of an edit.
I was wrong.
The more I've listened, the more American Doll Posse has revealed its strengths, like a flower bud that only slowly unveils its beauty over days. Initially I found the disc a bit dense and overwhelming, without a song that begged for hit single-dom like “Cornflake Girl” or “Crucify” or “A Sorta Fairytale.” Maybe that's just because I've grown accustomed and unsurprised by the magic of her songs – Tori's falsettos and vocal histrionics no longer sound unusual after listening to her now throughout an almost 20-year career.
But give the songs a few plays to sink in, and the musical genius of this album begins to seep out. American Doll Posse, her 10th studio album is another “concept” album, where Tori sings from the point of view of five distinct characters (all lined out with individual portraits in the CD booklet). But regardless of what qualities of the five Greek gods these characters supposedly represent, it doesn't really matter to the enjoyment of the album. I'm sure one of the characters is assigned to the anti-war political themes that bubble up throughout the disc (in the bitingly beautiful “Dark Side of the Sun” she asks “How many young men have to lay down their life and their love of a woman for some sick promise of a heaven?” and another character probably mouths the desperate feminism that forms the soul of other tracks. But I haven't sorted through who's who as I listened this week. I've simply increasingly enjoyed the listening. (Those interested in sorting out the “which character sings what” can visit www.toriamos.com and view blogs and photos of the characters, as well as the lyrics assigned to them.)
While arguably the “fragment” songs that all clock in under 2 minutes -- the political grenade “Yo George” which opens the disc, the sonic experiment “Fat Slut,” the simplistic statement of “Devils and Gods (they are you and I)”, the oddity of “Posse Bonus” (with a note for Laura Bush) or the strangely phrased bit of feminism “Programmable Soda” -- could be jettisoned to make a tighter album, in the end, they help divide up the disc with different sonic textures, palate cleansers if you will.
After the slight opening of “Yo George,” Tori really starts the album with the barrelhouse piano and swaggering bassline of “Big Wheel,” where she sings of a woman who used to be “considered a possession” but now is casting off her relationship chains, strutting to the mic in a center-song break to proclaim “I am an MILF/don't you forget.” For those who don't know the abbreviation, it's a self affirmation of her sexual power.
The beat continues with the slightly more sinuous “Bouncing Off Clouds,” before she opens “Teenage Hustling” with deceptive sparse piano chords before launching to the rock stratosphere as Brian May-influenced guitars twine and stomp in one of the disc's most bombastic rock stadium numbers.
The first ballad finally appears at song five, “Digital Ghost,” which still includes a full backing rock band but lets Amos croon bittersweet at the mic begging someone who's “slipping away” to “take a closer look at what it is that's really haunting you.”
The rhythmic sexually charged strut reappears with “You Can Bring Your Dog,” (“I'm not making any promises/but you still got that somethin' pretty boy”). Then comes “Mr. Bad Man,” which would have been a b-side in the old days – an amusing lark of a song but not really worthy of center-album space.
After “Fat Slut,” she turns in one of the most heart-touching songs of the disc. With “Girl Disappearing,” Amos brings the focus back to her lilting voice and lyrical piano with a slow waltz underswept with a small “Eleanor Rigby”-esque suite of chamber strings. It listens as if she is letting us in on a desperate secret as sings about the war between women: “envy can spread herself so thinly…blood in the cherry zone/when they pit woman against feminist.”
The other ballads come in the achingly pointed “Father's Son,” (so it ends/so it begins/I'm my father's son/plant another seed of hate/in a trusting virgin gun”) the equally melancholy “Roosterspur Bridge” (where she offers “sometimes I think I understand the fear in the boy/the fire in the man”) and the more upbeat arpeggiating piano track “Almost Rosey,” the catchiness of which belies the isolation inherent in its lyric (“why do they say have a nice day anyway/we both know they wouldn't mind if I just curled up and died.”)
“Secret Spell” holds an almost Byrds-like quality in its 12-string guitar chimes and pop-oriented “Turn you around” chorus melody, while the high lilt and deep drum pound of “Beauty of Speed” brings back the Kate Bush comparisons that Amos has drawn throughout her career.
It's not a perfect album, by any means… “Code Red” sounds more like earlier Tori than most of the disc but meanders on too long in its ominous mix of bass-heavy piano. I'd drop “Mr. Bad Man” and “Smokey Joe,” as well as a couple of the incidental song fragments mentioned earlier.
Still, despite its flaws, American Doll Posse is an ambitious, confident sprawl of an album that ultimately pans out stronger than her last couple releases, and displays a rock passion that we haven't heard from the “Piano Girl” since her From the Choirgirl Hotel album nine years ago. Don't dismiss this on a first listen or two… let Tori and her dolls sing to you for awhile and you'll soon find yourself joining the posse.