Tori Amos
From the Choirgirl Hotel

There's no give or take with Tori Amos. Sure, you can tolerate her -- like one tolerates the poetry of Sylvia Plath or the music of Enya or the pain of a hot poker in the eye. You either feel Amos's pain, or you feel she's the real pain; you either embrace her confessions and piano-bench grindings, or you dismiss her as nothing but a bundle of theatrics and bullshit who turned to piano-pop because her hair-metal career failed.

And maybe that's why, at times, I find Amos so awfully likable, even if I never listen to her albums in the days or weeks or years after writing about them. She makes music that is, on the surface, incredibly alluring but, deep down, so enigmatic and intimate it almost makes no sense at all, making her the most accessible inaccessible pop star around. She can turn a nonsense pairing of words into the most poetic image you've ever heard. Take "Lollipop Gestapo," on the new From the Choirgirl Hotel, for instance. It reduces sexual frustration to a damning punch line ("You're only wet / Because of the rain") and trips itself up with deep-think schoolgirl lyrics so fatuous they might as well not have any vowels ("With your E's / And your ease / And I do one more / Need a lip gloss boost").

That's basically the way she's been ever since the release of Y Kant Tori Read, when the 124 people who actually bought the thing wondered, "Y Kant Tori Rock?" Little Earthquakes, its 1991 follow-up (and Amos's proper debut) was a genuine revelation -- at once shocking and soothing, a beautiful listen but difficult to hear once you understood. It quickly became obvious that "Me & a Gun" was not fiction at all, as Amos used her astonishing talent for luring you into her most private hell, putting the listener in the passenger seat while she was being raped, turning her terror against you. From the get-go, Amos has revealed everything about herself -- until she's seemed to be offering a bit too much, right down to her masturbating in Daddy's church (in 1996's Boys for Pele). But she is also an extension of the '70s singer/songwriters who turned innermost feelings into universal plaints. Only in Amos's case, her inner demons -- and her inner crap -- belong solely to her; you can touch, but you cannot keep.

From the Choirgirl Hotel is more of the same but less so. The angsty melodrama of Boys for Pele and 1994's Under the Pink -- the piano pounding and nonsense lyrics as deep as a wading pool, the thorny Kate Bush nods -- has given way to music that offers more warmth, and words that carry more weight. It's still art rock with a capital "A", but for the first time, the piano is less obtrusive, set in the background where it plays nice with the guitars, drum loops and bass beats, all of which put Amos's feet on the ground, for a welcome change. Granted, she still buries her point in so many pretty-word vagaries. (Is the woman who screams, "I have to get to Texas" in "Black-Dove (January)" on the run from an attacker or herself?) But she proves that, when so determined, she can tell a pointed, warm, even familiar story like no one else.

"Jackie's Strength," where Amos becomes the new bride who prays for the strength of Jackie Kennedy, is the album's lyrical and musical highlight. Over a soundtrack-like string arrangement, Amos looks backward at her childhood, recalling the Kennedy assassination, David Cassidy lunch boxes, smoking pot at sleep-overs. More than a mere pop-culture clearinghouse, "Jackie's Strength" shows that yesterday was no better than today, and that you are often alone no matter where you are -- whether it be in gleaming Camelot or standing at the altar. (*** 1/2)

-- Robert Wilonsky

Sly and Robbie

Holding the groove has always run a close second to eating and sleeping for drummer Lowell "Sly" Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare. Dubbed the Riddim Twins, they've served as the low-end backbone for reggae royalty (Peter Tosh, Black Uhuru) and a host of pop, rock and hip-hop superstars, from Bob Dylan to the Fugees.

On Friends, these indispensable journeymen lend their electronically enhanced dancehall beats to a number of powerful guest performances. The mood here is pert and jazzy, with many of the tracks aiming for the more sophisticated reggae consumer (an impression borne out by appearances by UB40's Ali Campbell and Maxi Priest) and leavened with the occasional peculiar choice in covers. One might have expected, for instance, a version of a reggae standard such as Gregory Isaacs's "Night Nurse" (done here with Simply Red's Mick Hucknall). But a rendition of the Mission Impossible theme? A novel idea if it hadn't been done before, and to equally dull effect.

Still, there are plenty of dead-on updates that exhibit surprising flair. The reworking of DeBarge's "All This Love" is an instant make-out classic -- again. Caramel-voiced Liba lends honey-sweet accents to Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," done up as a swinging R&B number. But the most memorable track has to be "Satisfaction," which the Twins buff to a campy finish, and with Keith Richards on guitar, no less. The last four tracks on Friends are take-it-or-leave-it companion remixes -- fun but disposable.

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