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.

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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.

Throughout Friends, Sly and Robbie inject slick R&B stylings with rootsy reggae. It's a perfect introduction before moving on to vintage S&R -- for example, their fine '80s work with the Taxi Gang. Sure, you're still free to think that all that jumbled, jaw-wrenching techno-squawking heard in the clubs and at raves these days is the definitive drum-'n'-bas sound. But Sly and Robbie know better.(***) -- Craig D. Lindsey

This Is Hardcore

After Pulp's gleefully angst-ridden Different Class, the next move by the English cult freaks seems effortless and obvious by comparison. Having finally made a name for themselves with anthems for the seedier half of the teen-spirit generation, they can now get down to the business at hand -- namely, serious Bowie-worship in lavish, full-on decadence mode.

Among This Is Hardcore's many garish diamonds, "Party Hard" is a bristling pastiche of skewed, Scary Monsters art rock and Pet Shop Boyish after-hours ideals. Even more melodramatic is "Help the Aged," on which lead singer Jarvis Cocker goes where no self-involved Brit-pop savior has gone before, offering a gentle, unpatronizing reminder that it's quite likely your grandparents were cooler than you'll ever be. Meanwhile, the first single, "Like a Friend" (also on the Great Expectations soundtrack), laughs in the faces of simple-minded radio programmers as it flits between touching balladry, all-out rock, Windham Hill ambiance and back again -- all while momentarily conveying the sort of "woo-hoo" giddiness that finally broke Pulp's countrymen Blur in America.

Lyrically, Hardcore addresses the inner corners of 33-year-old Jarvis's uncertain humanity. As if to refute the success of Different Class, he confesses in "TV Movie" that he "can't even think of anything clever to say," before guiding us through a wistful succession of odes to lost love and fatherhood. He enumerates his shortcomings on "A Little Soul" and "I'm a Man," and displays his apprehension toward acting his age on "Dishes."

Of course, there's also the Jarvis of the title track, the self-proclaimed director of "one hell of a show," growling "that goes in there / Then that goes in there / And then it's over" with John Barry-style James Bond brass to set the mood. And if that hasn't loosened more prudish sensibilities, Jarvis gets it on with Neneh Cherry on "Seductive Barry," which owes its hot and bothered attitude to a different Barry altogether, oscillating between a "let's get it on" vibe and Love and Rockets etherea. All through This Is Hardcore, Jarvis's voice is your faithful, voyeuristic tour guide, as he wraps his lips around each syllable like a baby sucking the life out of a lollipop. Lock up your daughters -- and your sons for that matter; Pulp is on the prowl. (****)

-- Stephen Gershon

Sara Hickman
Two Kinds of Laughter

It's been a while since Sara Hickman released a collection of new songs. After 1994's Necessary Angels, she became a mom and broke ties with her label. But the Houston-bred Hickman never put her career on hold. She has continued to play before adoring audiences in Texas, writing new songs and honing her craft.

That work shows on her sparkling new release, Two Kinds of Laughter; once again, she lays down one quirky, endearing melody after another with her trademark enthusiasm and winning sense of humor. Guitarist Adrian Belew -- known for his work with David Bowie, King Crimson and Talking Heads, as well as his own solo material -- acts as producer, and more. In essence, he's the backup band, playing guitar, guitar synthesizer, bass and drums and adding remarkable accompaniment to a diverse group of song styles and rhythms. In turn, Hickman gives what may be her best recorded vocal performance ever.

"E Cosi Desio Me Mena" ("And So Desire Carries Me Along" in Italian) and "Comets Over Costa Rica" have a decidedly tropical flavor and stand out for their sense of stylistic reach. Elsewhere among the engaging folk/pop and sweet ballads fans expect from Hickman, the funky rhythms, striking social commentary and the singer's slyly effective delivery are as out-there as they've ever been. Yet it all works to near perfection.  

Admittedly, Two Kinds of Laughter's buoyant eclectic streak is not for everyone. But for those with a taste for the whimsical and the offbeat, Hickman's latest is bound to induce smiles. (***)

-- Jim Caligiuri

Natalie Imbruglia
Left of the Middle

You can't help comparing the career path of former Aussie soap star Natalie Imbruglia to that of Kylie Minogue, who walked a similar Down-Under path to pop diva-ness back in the early '90s. And remember, girl-next-door Minogue ended up dueting with Goth bad boy Nick Cave, so there may be a happy, more substantial ending to Imbruglia's story, too.

As it is now, though, Left of the Middle, Imbruglia's debut CD, gurgles, whimpers and drips with over-the-top, Euro-slick sighs of the brokenhearted. Yet underneath all the gloss, there are a handful of fine moments -- especially if you're a 14-year-old female wounded by love. The first single, "Torn," kicks things off in big, bold style; it's the perfect summer anthem for the recently dumped and/or just plain love-frustrated. "Big Mistake" alternately smolders and flirts, stomping the male ego silly with expensive Prada spiked heels, while "Don't You Think?" breaks it all wide open à la George Michael's first aspirations of stadium superstardom. Perhaps the best track on Left of the Middle is the mid-tempo "Wishing I Was There," but, alas, it's near the end of the album -- and making it that far without scrambling for the fast-forward button is a tough assignment.

With production and writing support from former Cure associate Phil Thornalley, Imbruglia often solidly succeeds on her coquettish, pouty-lipped charm and infectious enthusiasm alone. Still, an EP's worth of the best of this bunch would have sufficed. (** 1/2)

-- Melissa Blazek

Press Ratings
***** Historic
**** Great
*** Worthy
** So-so
* Lame

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