Tori Amos
From The Choirgirl Hotel

Tori Amos has graduated from the sometimes overly precious school of solo piano magna cum loud. From The Choirgirl Hotel is the album Amos has put off making for a decade. Her first recording project in the '80s, a forgotten synth-rock band called Y Kant Tori Read, showed that Amos wants to rock, not just sing gentle poetry. Her covers of Nirvana and Led Zeppelin (single B-sides from her 1991 solo debut Little Earthquakes) showed her root leanings, as did Earthquake's captivatingly rhythmic a-side "Crucify." Then there were the crunchy guitar riffs of Under the Pink's "God" and the pounding harpsichord (that wanted to grow up to be a guitar) of Boys For Pele's "Professional Widow." But each of those have been moments of fire in the midst of cooler musical climes.

After the muddy undisciplined detour of Boys For Pele, at last Amos delivers on her rock 'n' roll promise. Her fourth solo album leaves behind the confines of solo piano and voice compositions to feature a full band on nearly every track. The result is a 12-song tour de force of the singer-songwriter's top strengths: Amos delivers palpable emotion on a hotplate of piano, guitars and scintillating rhythm, tossing off intermingled religious and sexual references like parade confetti.

The power of this new mix was more than evident during her sneak preview sold-out show at Chicago's Park West last Thursday, April 30th. Part of a 12-date small club tour, Amos played both old and new songs with a cheerful piano-pounding abandon that kicked beat-happy life into her earlier work like "Precious Things," "Tear In Your Hand" "Cornflake Girle" and "The Waitress," and easily sold the new material to the audience. Her return show later this year should be marked as a "don't miss."

While on Boys for Pele, some of the non-piano instrumentation sounded false — jewelry clipped onto her piano attacks after the fact — on From the Choirgirl Hotel the strings, guitars and percussion act as a unified whole (Pele's harpsichords and trumpets are thankfully left behind). Amos often fades her trademark piano way back in the mix and lets the songs dictate who plays lead. And the songs are a revelation. "Cruel" wraps a slinky distorted bass around a percussion collage of marimba echoes and warp drive synth effects. This is a Garbage song with a heavy case of mood. "Raspberry Swirl" centers the disc with an astounding burst of danceclub noise. "Hey, hey let's go!" Amos trembles at the outset, a pounding beat picking up on the hint of guitar grind and ambient wails to collide in a staccato, pounding anthem. Amos has been remixed on her previous albums by a variety of clubhands to good effect; this time around she scooped the mixers by banging together a perfect mix on her own.

Following hot on the spiked leather heels of "Raspberry Swirl" comes "She's Your Cocaine," a distortion happy, strutting bar grind. But never fear piano purists, in between these rockin' revelations Amos strips things back to let the ivories (and her lilting upper vocal range) take centerstage. "Jackie's Strength" is one of Amos' finest ballads, a mellifluous tapestry of tragedy, teenage memory and the warm buzz of orchestral strings lending it all a soundtrack-large feel of import. "Northern Lad" tops it in impact, however and serves as a breathtaking centerpin to the album. "Northern Lad" opens with the familiar Amos vocal/piano duet format; a heart-rending ballad, it delivers the lyrical impact of Under the Pink's "Baker Baker," and even manages an oblique nod at her new sound, offering in a lyric about a devolving relationship: "I guess you go too far when pianos try to be guitars." So instead she has brought in the guitars. Gradually bass and drums slide into the piano-vocal mix, adding power to the pain of the bittersweet lyric about a love that's slipped away.

Likewise, while it's the off-kilter shamble of drums and eerily reverbed guitar strums that dominate the opening minutes of the album's leadoff track (and first single) "Spark," the song really only takes off once Amos' hands hit the keys in a circling classical-leaning solo and powerchord fury in its latter half.

From the Choirgirl Hotel scores much higher than Boys for Pele throughout, but still has its tripstones. "Iiee" and "Liquid Diamonds" slow up the middle of the disc with, respectively, a tedious percussion/vocal exercise and an overly long background mood piece heavy on cymbals and piano. They might be saved by remixing. "Hotel" is the only real loser on the disc. It sounds like something Amos tried to save herself by piecing together two widely disparate techno loops that never end up melding. The chorus enters in a jarring song restart after a verse from a completely different planet. This sounds like anything but a seamless whole.

If you're looking for songs with comprehensible lyrics, this is not the place. The lyric book to From the Choirgirl Hotel often reads like the poetry of ransom note type: random bits of thought glued together at odd intervals to form a lyrical puzzle, rather than a story. But it has always been the style and measured emotion of Amos' vocal delivery that sold her songs, comprehensible lyrics or no, and she delivers both style and emotion in buckets on From the Choirgirl Hotel. This is her first real album playing a band as opposed to a piano; after a year of learning to play this new instrument on the road, she may very well return to close the century with an album of transcendent perfection. In the meantime, this one will stand as one of her best efforts.