Certainly there have been influential women throughout music history, but the '90s have truly seen girls come into their own.
In the past year, it seemed, from this side of the music industry desk anyway, that there were more girl groups than guy groups being released. And the triumphant triptych of Lilith Fairs in the latter half of this decade served as both a reflection of and a catalyst for the popularization of women artists.
Tori Amos started the ball rolling in the '90s with her hugely successful, intensely personal "Little Earthquakes" album, while Sarah McLachlan followed up her underappreciated late '80s debut "Touch" with a string of increasingly popular discs this decade. Their success paved the way for Paula Cole's confessional hits of a couple years ago. All three artists are, in different ways, "descendants" of British studio recluse Kate Bush, who released a string of groundbreaking albums in the '80s, and all of these influential women are represented on Rhino Records' Respect: A Century of Women in Music.
A gorgeous five-CD set (housed in a red velvet box), the collection moves from disc one's "Broadway and Blues" names of the early part of the century (Sophie Tucker, Alma Gluck, Fanny Brice, Joan Crawford, Bessie Smith and Ethel Merman) to the "Torch and Twang" that followed on disc two (Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day, Mahalia Jackson, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington and Patsy Cline). Disc three covers the "Shoop-Shoop and Motown" of the '50s and '60s (Aretha Franklin, the Chantels, Peggy Lee, The Shirelles, Brenda Lee, Martha and the Vandellas, Dusty Springfield, Judy Collins, Nina Simone and Carole King). The '70s and '80s are typified by the "Rock to Electric Shock" disc (Janis Joplin, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Fleetwood Mac, Blondie, the Runaways, Rickie Lee Jones, the Slits, Yoko Ono, Go-Go's, and the Pretenders). More recent influential women take up the final disc in the set, "Hip-Hop, Pop and Passion," including the aforementioned Bush, Amos, McLachlan and Cole as well as Bangles, Cyndi Lauper, Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams, k.d. lang, Sinead O'Connor, Ani DiFranco, Liz Phair and PJ Harvey. There's an 80-page booklet with the set which traces the musical lineage of many of these artists. If you're thinking about making up Christmas lists soon, this would be a good addition to any Lilith Fair music lover's list.
To Venus and Back
It's been said that some performers have fans so loyal, they'd listen to the star sing the names in the phone book.
Tori Amos has that kind of fiercely devoted fans (some call themselves "Ears with Feet"), and she tests that loyalty, not with the phone book, but with a litany of plants in "Datura," one of the studio tracks from To Venus and Back, a new double album that collects 11 new studio tracks on one disc and 13 live cuts from her last tour on the other. In "Datura," aside from singing "get out of my garden" and "is there room in my heart for you to follow your heart and not need more blood from the tip of your star?" Amos simply recites plant names — "passion vine, texas sage, indigo spires salvia, confederate jasmine … " — throughout. This is certainly a test of endurance for anyone looking for Amos' normally "heavy" personal lyricism. Even when she does offer "poetic" lyrics, they can be downright incomprehensible — as in "Bliss," the first single from disc one (subtitled Venus Orbiting), where she sings about killing her monkey by setting it free to taste the spring. "We're a Bliss of another kind," she concludes.
Lyrical quibbles aside, the studio half of To Venus and Back does offer some worthwhile tracks. "Lust" is an eerie, heavily reverbed piano piece with restrained but necessary percussion; "Concertina" is a lovely, dreamy collage of walking bass, piano and poetry; and the closing hymn about setting a lover free, "1000 Oceans," succeeded in doing something to me that very few artists have ever managed — its simple beauty brought tears to my eyes. That was the same reaction I had eight years ago to Amos' first solo recording, as I listened to her sing of finding strength to leave abusive relationships and of rape and of "finding her voice." It's good to hear her pen still has that power, though it has manifested itself less and less of late, as her lyrics have moved more toward external portraits than internal exposes.
Other tracks on Venus Orbiting are passable, but just don't incite the kind of excitement that last year's From the Choirgirl Hotel collection did. "Juarez" rests on a bass and beat that sounds like a reprise from "iieee" off of Choirgirl, and "Glory of the '80s" offers a hint of a disco beat and wah-wah guitar as Amos sings of the silicone party fakery of the synthesized decade. Ultimately, Orbiting listens like a solid EP that was padded into an LP with a handful of B-sides.
The second disc in the set, Venus Live, Still Orbiting, features some great live moments from the last tour and, in part, answers the bootleggers, who have put out dozens of illegal CD collections capturing Amos live over the past few years. A double live set would really have done the trick. Instead, Amos tries to cram in some of her concert favorites (but not all) along with some rarities.
Venus Live, Still Orbiting includes "Cornflake Girl," "Bells for Her," "Waitress," "Little Earthquakes" and "Precious Things," (the latter of which features a nice slow intro buildup) as well as the music box sweet drama of "Cloud on My Tongue" and a previously unrecorded track "Cooling," a quiet piano ballad about the disintegration of a relationship which, Amos explains to the live audience, has "refused" to fit on her past couple of records.
While it's a solid listen prickling with Amos' natural theatrical energy, the live side doesn't quite give a complete feel for Amos' tour of last year, because it omits her concert favorites "God," "Crucify," "Silent All These Years," "Tear in Your Hand," and "Caught a Lite Sneeze" not to mention the best three songs from Choirgirl, the singles "Spark" and "Raspberry Swirl," not to mention the show-stopping heartache ballad "Northern Lad." Instead, Amos opted to include the quirky "Mr. Zebra" from Boys for Pele and two single B-side songs recorded during sound check — "Sugar," originally released as a B-side from Boys For Pele, and "Purple People," a B-side from the "Choirgirl" sessions.
With the omission of many of her hits from the live disc, and the uneven quality of the studio disc, To Venus and Back listens more like an odds and sods collection than an affirmation of Amos' creative wizardry. Still, she strikes some solid sparks here, and Amos fans will no doubt swoon over each and every track. Even when she spends several minutes reciting plant names.
Paula Cole Band
Paula Cole opens her third album (and first to recognize her longtime instrumentalists as the "Paula Cole Band") with the disco-influenced declaration "I Believe In Love." This song could have been a hit 20 years ago, but Cole's emotional delivery and sweetly placed strings should turn the trick neatly this fall in a triumphant return to the pop charts following her multiplatinum 1996 CD, This Fire. "I Believe In Love" sets the tone for the whole album, which revamps more retro musical styles than her last, more modern-sounding disc.
At nine songs, Amen seems a "short" album, but actually, it still runs 51minutes, because Cole lets the songs stretch out in sensual langorous passages. This is a good thing on the stirring title track, "Amen," because she affirms the necessity of polar concepts and people such as Kevorkian, the NSA, NASA, Betty Page, Gloria Steinham, Ronald Reagan and more.
"Amen for O.J., Clinton, too
Amen for the Republican witch hunt coup
Amen for Gandhi, for Malcolm X
Amen for the uprising of the weaker sex …
Amen for the unity of us all."
"gotta face my steppenwolf …
I will look for strength within
I will be a better woman
Hang in there baby
I'm the grain of sand
becoming the pearl."
Another keeper comes in the yearning strains of "Be Somebody" which echoes the power of her last hit, "I Don't Want To Wait," when she proclaims, "I want to be somebody/I want to make a difference."
Halfway through the album, the band switches gears and things start to go downhill. "Rhythm of Life" works on a Muzak-slow lounge jazz rhythm as Cole scats. This is the first song on the disc to seem ponderously long (it's just not interesting enough to suck up nearly eight minutes of album space). Then in "Free," she seems in search of a true melody to latch onto — the song is half as long as "Rhythm," but it never seems to quite find its groove. And in "Suwannee Jo," she turns in a dark swampy dirge before closing the album with another dark-tinged number, "God Is Watching." The latter song, at least, gets a solid beat going.
While she stumbles on the second half of the album, overall Amen yields some tracks well worth praising. Thoughtful, singable, sensual, Cole shows that she's not afraid to follow her muse and take whatever chances that journey brings. The results, while uneven, are worth hearing.