Playbill

Tori Amos's new release, Strange Little Girls, is a collection of covers, to which Amos hopes to give feminine voice through 13 alter egos, or "characters." No one knows exactly what to call this beast, as it begs comparisons to everything from k.d. lang's Drag to Liz Phair's Rolling Stones reply, Exile in Guyville (1993). If anything, Girls' clearest antecedent is Bowie's Ziggy Stardust album, with its narrative line and cast of assumed characters. Though Amos's experiment definitely succeeds, the album's conceits admittedly read like something Yoko Ono might come up with after a three-day coke binge. Call it Men Are from Guyville, Tori Amos Is from Mars.

Amos's covers have always held to a uniformly elegiac standard, lovely but nearly indistinguishable in their mourning. While most of Girls avoids this pitfall, certain tracks will be lost in the shuffle, high-concept delivery notwithstanding. The spare girl-and-piano formula works spectacularly well, however, with the Boomtown Rats' baroque "I Don't Like Mondays" and Joe Jackson's "Real Men." Where Bob Geldof intended "Mondays" as a punk commentary on the inevitable attendant madness of conformist society, Amos considers all sides of the song's schoolyard massacre in a sly reading of American violence that bypasses the usual trite bugaboos in favor of more subversive lines of exploration. Similarly, Amos uses Jackson's examination of masculinity-as-performance to investigate her complex relationship with her own gender.

It's a shame that the most recognizable of the songs present on Girls are also its least inspiring tracks, with the exception of "'97 Bonnie and Clyde." This lesser light from Eminem's Slim Shady LP is a standout here, a gorgeous and effective song, presented as a farewell from a murdered wife to her daughter over lush, suspenseful strings and subtle percussion. The exuberant first single, the Stranglers' "Strange Little Girl," is perfect for Amos: catchy and dynamic, with classic Amos vocal work brought into sharp focus by strong guitars and funky percussion. Another pleasant surprise, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions' "Rattlesnakes" is a clever and understated confection, trading the country twang of the original for a more subtle steel guitar and synth score that perfectly updates the lyrical description of utter freedom and abandon. These two tunes are the most accessible and upbeat on the album, although one wonders if the better-known songs (Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence," 10cc's "I'm Not in Love," both so spare they cross over to boring) will garner more attention, despite their tediousness.

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Jacob Clifton