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Amos' sonic road trip - an intricate, towering achievement,
This review is from: Scarlet's Walk (Audio CD)
Tori Amos' Sony/Epic debut, Scarlet's Walk, was released in 2002 to mostly positive reaction from critics but muted response from many fans. Where were the semi-gothic piano epics? Where were the impassioned vocals? Where was the sonic diversity? But, as with the best albums, it has matured like a fine wine and is held in high regard today by the Amos fan community that has recognised its subtle, intricate delights.
Motherhood has calmed Amos here (daughter Tash born in 2000) and given her a new perspective. Where previous albums tended to look inward for inspiration, Amos now becomes more of an observational songwriter and the impact of 9/11 caused her to think about America and its history. Tapping into her own Native American roots, Amos sculpted a towering masterpiece of poetic imagery and songcraft, drawing on the wells of American history and politics. Scarlet's Walk is like a travelogue, and loosely follows the protagonist, Scarlet, across the United States on a road trip.
Musically and lyrically, Amos attempts to evoke the place Scarlet is supposed to be in - the desert setting of "Don't Make Me Come to Vegas" features a slow, sensual rhythm and Mexican-style percussion; the Floridian summerscape of "Another Girl's Paradise" is sensual and summery, with images of groves and oranges; "Virginia" references the state with its folk-style dobro and twisting piano melody. But even if the listener doesn't follow Scarlet's journey (and the lyrics don't make reference to any particular character or any particular event - i.e. the story of Native American plight in "Scarlet's Walk" is evoked rather than stated, and the 9/11 catastrophe in the intense epic "I Can't See New York" is not clearly mentioned), the album is an intricately-woven gem.
The hallmark is soft, subtle, '70s-style arrangements akin to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, with meticulously-crafted melodies that come off as effortless; vocally, Amos sings in a natural range, lending the material an earthy tone, and a hallmark is to finish each song on a lingering a cappella note. What was once mistaken for blandness or repetitiveness is actually narrative continuity. But that doesn't mean each song is the same - far from it.
The ballads here are alternately heart-wrenchingly sad ("Strange"), plaintive (the simple "Your Cloud"), majestic ("Scarlet's Walk"), or opulent and grand ("Gold Dust"), and the harder-edged material is among Amos' best, with subtly fiery tunes like "Sweet Sangria" and "Pancake" ensuring that this album retains a musical diversity. There are also some superb new experiments, like the country shuffle of "Wednesday," the Mexican rhythms in "Vegas," and the chamberlain flute in "Mrs. Jesus." There's also more of a melodic, hook-laden pop sound on show, especially on such superb examples of songcraft as "Amber Waves," "A Sorta Fairytale," and "Taxi Ride." Vocally, she's in fine form, especially on the likes of "I Can't See New York" and the orgasmic coda to "Virginia."
One of the most significant artistic contributions of her career, Scarlet's Walk is Tori Amos' ultimate conceptual realisation. She has been more sonically and musically adventurous, but musical diversity and experimentation was not in service to these songs, which have a classic, nostalgic '70s feel in their arrangements and superbly executed chord progressions. It's a majestic work, and one of Amos' best. Here, she proves that you don't need to wail your way through a song or sing provocative lyrics to have a deep, resonant impact.