Tori Amos
Boys for Pele

"Musically, I always allow myself to jump off of cliffs," Tori Amos muses in the liner notes to her new CD. "To me, this album sounds like the biggest cliff yet."

Maybe so. But the next time Amos decides to take a plunge as big as the one on Boys for Pele, she may want to make sure she's not headed for a slab of dull slate. All said and done, the self-produced Boys for Pele is an incoherent, confused scramble of unfinished thoughts and unmemorable musical indulgences. Its slight feel is more than a tad ironic, given that Amos appears to have been striving for some sort of resonance with her spare piano-voice arrangements and delicate, unobtrusive tonal dynamics.

Lost in her continual spiritual and emotional cleansing -- a therapy she self-administered effectively on her 1992 debut, Little Earthquakes, and its follow-up, Under the Pink -- Amos has forgotten that she's better at writing twisted pop songs than expansive impressionistic vignettes. Her ability to craft piano-based melodies that join a classical bent to the addictive potency of Elton John's best '70s work, and then drop them into post-punk's volatile context, is what made her previous portrayals of adult abuse and childhood trauma easy, even enjoyable, to stomach. But Boys for Pele, recorded in rural Ireland and Louisiana, where Amos obviously had a lot of time to overthink things, simply has no innards to go with its excessive 18 songs. The music wanders without cause, stopping periodically only to admire its own intellect.

If Amos decides to flip us off for good and take up cliff-diving as a career, she might want to consider taking someone along with her when she leaps. As Boys for Pele, her maiden jump, shows, she's in desperate need of an outsider's levelheaded input. -- Hobart Rowland

Various Artists
Twisted Willie
Justice Records

Most tribute discs are the recording industry equivalent of tofu hot dogs. It seems that nobody associated with the projects takes the time to answer one basic question before launching into production: Why? That question certainly applies to Twisted Willie, Justice Records' new so-called "homage" to Willie Nelson.

Why Nelson needs a tribute disc isn't at all clear. He isn't dead, he's hardly neglected, he does his own material better than anyone and his back catalog isn't particularly difficult to locate. Maybe the idea was to honor Nelson's songwriting, to show how it transcends style and circumstance and comes out the other end smelling sweet. That's not what happens here. Nelson has written reams of undeniably great material, but the sampling of songs on Twisted Willie just isn't the cream of his crop, nor does it gain much of anything (other than volume) from being blenderized in this (largely) Seattle swirl of tributaries.

Okay, so maybe the idea here was to pick an innovative selection of songs to match the innovative selection of bands. If that was the case, then it's instructive to remember that death by injection was once an innovation, too. Nelson will undoubtedly survive these particular executions of his work, but the sad fact remains that Twisted Willie's who-woulda-thunk-it juxtapositions result in almost total incoherence. Johnny Cash's cover of "Time of the Preacher" (with a disconcerting guitar solo by Soundgarden's Kim Thayil) and Waylon Jennings' "I Never Cared for You" make a certain predictable sense, but sandwiched in with pointless noisemakers such as Tenderloin's "Shotgun Willie," Supersuckers' "Bloody Mary Morning," Best Kissers in the World's "Pick Up the Tempo," Gas Huffer's "I Gotta Get Drunk" and Steel Pole Bathtub's "The Ghost," they lose their power to thrill.

In the (relative) plus column, Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan has the pipes to properly haunt "She's Not for You," it's good to hear former Dead Kennedys' yelper Jello Biafra back in action, even if he's doing nothing more than running roughshod over "Still Is Still Moving to Me," and sure, the Presidents of the United States of America's cover of "Devil in a Sleeping Bag" is, umm, cute. But what's been gained? X's "Home Motel" is more or less blameless, and Kelley Deal and Kris Kristofferson spindle "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" into a weird new shape. But again, why?

L7's version of "Three Days" (with guest Waylon Jennings) pretty much embodies the overall confusion with a schizo reading that veers from grunge rave-up to acoustic "country" mode and back again in the space of one song, without ever giving any indication that the band listened to the tune more than once, much less developed the kind of relationship with it that would justify an homage. "We like Willie's braids," comments L7 in the liner notes, and that, it seems, is as far as it goes.

Producer Randall Jamail does deserve some credit, or at least local gratitude, for slipping Justice recording artist and Houston homeboy Jesse Dayton into this mass of hit-makers. In truth, Dayton's got more right to be covering Nelson than many bands on the disc, and his recorded-through-the-phone vocal on "Sad Songs and Waltzes" is one of the few experiments that work.

Make no mistake: this is an album of wild experiments. Nelson's own participation (he sits in with the Supersuckers and the Reverend Horton Heat) provides a buffer against claims that the bands butchered his catalog like so much meat under the cleaver.

But then, Nelson always has been an irreverent goof. It's not hard to believe that he took perverse pride in watching his songs get all bent out of shape. He probably enjoyed it, and why not? Maybe there is something to like about Twisted Willie after all: the fact that unlike most other tribute albums, which simple fizzle out, this one fails spectacularly. And what about that CD title? Is that a bent penis joke, or what? -- Brad Tyer

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Hobart Rowland
Brad Tyer