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Amos' overflowing garden - a sensual, soft-focus epic
on 11 April 2007
Tori Amos was one of the most successful and significant singer-songwriters of the 1990s, and perhaps the finest female singer-songwriter since Joni Mitchell. However, her early albums, which were semi-confessional, bloodletting, emotional epics of intense drama have tended to cast her eternally as angst-ridden or fiery. Which makes subtle works like 2002's Scarlet's Walk and 2005's The Beekeeper appear less mesmeric at first, and also tends to see them wrongfully maligned.
Scarlet's Walk is perhaps Amos' songwriting masterpiece, a work of insight and spot-on poetry evoking American history and politics, with a smooth, '70s road-trip style soundtrack to match. The Beekeeper is its more sensual, sexy, and diverse sister, finding Amos in a slower, groovier mood than ever before. The histrionics and dark, semi-gothic epics are replaced in favour of songs positively dripping in sensuality and subtlety.
Melodically, it is one of Amos' strongest works, especially on such minor verse/major chorus delights as "Parasol," the soft, girlish "Martha's Foolish Ginger," and the delicately feminine "Jamaica Inn." A hallmark of this album is soft, tinkly piano melodies, intricately-woven high-pitched backing vocals, and more conventional song structures than before. Compared to her previous records, the production style - with vocals upfront, and subtle arrangements - is inviting but not necessarily as adventurous; still, when Tori Amos does "conventional," it's not quite conventional like other artists.
Elsewhere, she indulges a more diverse side than Scarlet's Walk displayed. "Sweet the Sting" is sexy Latin funk a la Santana, the "sha-na-na" oddity of "Ireland" has a strange reggae undercurrent, "Witness" is a cascading homage to '70s R&B/neo-funk with a surprising piano break, and "Mother Revolution" retains a jazzy rhythm without introducing traditionally jazz instruments. Only the urgently beautiful "Marys of the Sea" and the fierce if strained "Barons of Suburbia" recall her mid-'90s 'freakouts,' but there are two solo piano beauties as well - the closing "Toast," an ode to her recently-departed brother, and the show-stopping "Original Sinsuality," despite its pun-laden lyrics a spellbinding gem featuring one of her career-best codas.
Vocally, Amos is not in her ultimate best form but still manages well with the material. At times, her high-end vocal range sounds a little forced, but these songs have a soft femininity to which the vocal style suits. Amos herself described the album, which is wildly varied thematically (although she attempted to construct a concept based around the Gnostic gospels that restored Mary Magdalene), as "a perfume that wraps around you," and sonically that is very true.
The Beekeeper has been dismissed by many as too soft, too long, and not cohesive enough. True, some editing could have been advisable but this is a new subtle perspective to Amos' work and a welcome addition to her canon, which of course will be ever-growing in the years to come. It's not quite as intricate or complex as before, and the lyrics are far from her best, but it's by no means a poor or average album and even when Amos veers close to the mainstream, there's enough uniqueness and originality to remind us that she is in fact a world-class songwriter and a modern-day treasure.