Tori Amos - From the Choirgirl Hotel

ANYONE WHO STILL TREASURES THE IDEA OF feminine mystique probably secretly regrets that the days of the ducking stool are long past. The whole concept is little more than a woolly softening of the mentality that, terrified of difference, went in for a bit of witch-burning on the village green. Nowadays, it's more socially acceptable to explain away any apparent oddity as being sweetly deranged, and, providing the person in question fits the bill, rather alluring. No wonder Tori Amos has enjoyed such great success - her eccentric mystique, together with that other supposedly female perennial, suffering, have made her a trauma poster girl, the screwed-up survivor with the sexy scars.

Sure, only a fiendishly callous misanthrope would dismiss the very real, very painful events endured by Amos - not least the recent miscarriage that inspired this record - but her luxuriant soul-baring and indulgent assumptions soon grate. "You're only popular with anorexia", she sighs on 'Jackie's Strength', instantly forcing a whole world of victimhood upon the listener. Yet for all the passion, all the intensity, there's something strangely inert about 'Songs From The Choirgirl Hotel', as if all the emotion were recorded in the dead air of a lightbulb, the audience looking in through the glass, asked to admire and sympathise entirely on her terms.

This is the infuriating indulgence that the confessional needs to avoid if it's not to make you take to the streets with a machete; the unbridgeable gap between Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder, Kristin Hersh and Alanis Morissette, between expecting applause for pulling out your heart and bleeding, and having the discipline to use a scalpel and a paintbrush.

All of which would make 'Songs From The Choirgirl Hotel' utterly intolerable, were it not for the fact that it's often musically intriguing, a conscious effort by Amos to move away from her pianocentric horizons. The opening 'Spark' rains down in a cloud of Cocteaus-esque gloom, while the crazed 'Raspberry Swirl' is genuinely sexy, Tori convulsively growling "let's go" over a rogue-robotic pulse. Even 'Jackie's Strength', despite bringing those Giants Of Rock Mark Cohn and 10,000 Maniacs to mind, manages to be prettily affecting. Yet Amos' creative use of unpredictable rhythms comes across not so much as a new language, but as the same old language spoken by someone with a lousy grasp of syntax. At its best - on 'Iieee' and 'Cruel' - she shows the ill logic of an organic Tricky, cracking open a chilled, Martina-cool groove. At its worst, it's the self as show-and-tell, the messy splatter of 'She's Your Cocaine' or 'Liquid Diamonds' as irritating as an acid bath on sunburn.

It would be easy to believe Tori, hanging from a heartstring, is just giving, giving, giving. In reality, all she does is demand.


Victoria Segal