To Venus and Back
Tori Amos is from Venus. Everyone else is from Mars.
But is there such a thing as gender-specific music? Can you really tell if it's a boy or girl playing an instrument? If it's Tori Amos, yes.
Tori Amos rocks from her cunt. She jacks a piano the way Jimi Hendrix jacked a Strat. Her sexuality oozes in every heaving breath, every lingering note sung or played. Her fury, lust and longing underscore each song. With her musical and lyrical ability, she makes Courtney Love and Jewel, not to mention Limp Bizquick, look like whiny, tantrum-throwing preschoolers. Granted, her lyrics sometimes read like Bad Teen Angst Poetry ("...and I found out where my edge is / And it bleeds into where you resist / And my only way out is to go / So far in"), but not always.
Ever since the song about her real-life rape, "Me and a Gun," from 1991's Little Earthquakes, Amos's exposing her demons in song has attracted many fans, both male and female. She has plumbed personal despair better than any Lilith fare. She's virtuosic, she's gorgeous, she's weird, she believes in faeries, and she mesmerizes the room when she plays live. She plops down at the baby grand, spreads her legs as wide as possible, undulates, practically bounces off the piano bench and hardly ever looks down at her fingers, her attention so focused on delivering her words to the audience.
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To Venus and Back leaves us cheated in that respect. Tori has become a platinum-selling cult favorite because of her passionate live performances, perfected through constant touring. Since the record merely tantalizes us with one disc of material from her "Plugged '98" world tour, a double live album might have captured the essence of her stunning show better than this live/studio mix, especially since the studio cuts are so-so in production quality and imagination. Nevertheless, To Venus is still essential.
From the opening track, "Precious Things," with its huge stadium-echo audience shrieks and swirling intro, it's clear that Amos could take arena rock to another level. Each song, on average, is more than six minutes long and chock-full of notes, changes and multiple instrumentation. We're given the favorites -- "Cornflake Girl," "Space Dog," "Cloud on My Tongue," which are all wonderfully rendered -- as well as the previously unavailable "Cooling," which Amos introduces as "one of my best friends" who "decided that she wanted to be played live" rather than be locked away on disc. This is the sort of kooky highlight from her live show that makes fellow weirdos go gaga.
The studio sides, while still Torian, offer no revelations. It's disappointing that with all the technology available today, a soundscaper like Tori Amos couldn't come up with more innovative effects than the ones on these tracks.
Overall, there's much good music. "Lust" is probably the best piece on this disc. The song is a balance of pretty waterfall piano and haunting drum-machine beats; the tune's best trick may be that Amos transforms some rather moribund lyrics into something luscious and alive. "Riot Proof" is the record's most throwaway pseudo-electronic piece, while "Datura" employs a mechanized drum-corps snare beneath a recitation, in monotone, of all the plants in Amos's garden. Though Madonna's "Justify My Love" was a better attempt at this bare-bones compositional construct, "Datura," like said Madonna song, could well become a hit dance single. The last two cuts, "Spring Haze" and "1,000 Oceans," are nearly straight-ahead girly folk songs, recalling Amos's statement that this whole record is her Cindy Sherman album, referring to the photographer. Like a Sherman exhibit, To Venus and Back is a showcase of diverse self-portraiture and versatility, even if the whole thing doesn't hang together like Amos's previous albums, all mini-universes unto themselves. After all, it's Tori's world. We just live in it.(Liz Belile)