My Faith Is Greater Than My Fear
247 · 21 October 99
Tori Amos: to venus and back
In 1981 I was 14, and my three favorite bands were Black Sabbath, Blue Öyster Cult and Rush. My first rock concert, and probably still the most deliriously overblown rock spectacle I've seen, would be BÖC, two or three years later, on tour for The Revölution By Night (with special guests Aldo Nova and Dokken, after whom I never took the phrase "special guest" seriously again), complete with the drummer pelting the fire-emitting Godzilla head behind him with drum sticks, and Joe Bouchard and Buck Dharma flipping their guitars over to reveal spotlight-redirecting mirrors on the back. I didn't get to see Rush until much later, the Boston stop on the Hold Your Fire tour, by which point my values had evolved to the point that I was more disappointed that they didn't get Aimee Mann to drop by and sing her part on "Time Stand Still" than I was impressed by the laser show. And only the time-warp tour for Dehumanizer, in 1992, allowed me to finally see Black Sabbath in the Iommi/Butler/Dio/Appice configuration I first loved. Back in 1981, though, lying on the floor of my room with my headphones on, inventing elaborate contrasting mythologies for the rotting, hooded ghouls on the cover of Mob Rules and the ritualistic, symbol-bedecked (and also hooded) priests on the cover of Fire of Unknown Origin, all these shows were in the future, and my present was haunted by the horrifying discovery that I was just one year too late to catch the Black and Blue tour, Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult together, a double-bill whose personal relevance seemed unlikely to ever be equaled.
Which is why, although I smugly sat out the recent arena appearances by Alanis Morissette (having seen her on the 1995 club tour before Jagged Little Pill exploded) and Tori Amos (having seen her on both the piano-only Little Earthquakes and lightly tape-loop-enhanced Under the Pink tours, the latter from second-row seats acquired in what I suspect and hope will turn out to have been my final overnight ticket-line vigil), I went ahead and set my fast internet connection to the task of getting tickets for the Boston stop on their recent joint tour, despite apprehension about the concept. The last co-headlining tour I saw at Great Woods (before they sold the name to corporate sponsorship, an odious practice, although ask me what I think about it if I'm ever offered a never-work-again sum to make this The Philip Morris War Against Silence), The Sisters of Mercy and Public Enemy, was a demographic disaster, and while Tori/Alanis seemed a little less risky, on the surface, subtle differences can sometimes provoke far more virulent antagonism than obvious ones. I worried that oblivious Alanis fans would simply ignore Tori, and that incensed Tori disciples would, in turn, scorn Alanis. But I love them both, myself, and some foolish, obdurate spark in my heart insisted that it would be fine, that I'm not alone, and that when I tell my grandchildren, decades from now, that I saw Tori and Alanis together, they will say "Who?", not "Wow, you were there at the massacre that ended feminism?"
And Tori, to her credit, must have understood this danger from the inception, as she took two astute steps to forestall conflict. First, she agreed to take the opening slot, despite (supposedly) Alanis' offer to rotate. Solidarity is inspiring, but most individual fans would only see one night, not the tour as a whole, and from that constrained point of view, the logic is simple: Alanis has sold more records, therefore she could be expected to draw more fans, therefore she should play last. And second, perhaps more significantly, Tori opted for a set, essentially the same one from the Plugged tour just ended, that emphasized volume, vitriol and violent catharsis over dramatic silence, emotional rapture and harrowing tension. (Although whether this was her conscious attempt to cater to Alanis' audience, or whether the double-bill owes its existence to Tori's realization that her current show already catered to them of its own nature, I have no idea.) The trademark of her early shows was the complete silence during the gaps between notes. This time, the few gaps between notes seem to be there solely for inhaling. live. still orbiting, the concert half of this double album, doesn't reproduce the exact set list from the show I saw, but if you graphed the two, on axes of noise and intensity, I think they'd be almost identical, the song substitutions meticulously precise in replacing kind with kind, which makes this one of the most successful translations of a concert into album form in my experience. Turn this up loud enough that the bass rattles your home, close your eyes, and imagine that you are there.
The show opens, fittingly, with a seething full-band rendition of "Precious Things", arguably the one song on Little Earthquakes that lost something in its solo form. Steve Caton's wailing guitar, John Evans surging bass and Matt Chamberlain's concussive drums, especially when they all crash in around Tori's invocation of Nine Inch Nails, achieve by excess, it seems to me, what Tori by herself used to achieve by reduction, complete emotional candor and defiant defenselessness. Tori and Alanis often take orthogonal routes towards stability, but "So you can make me come, / That doesn't make you Jesus" isn't that far from "You Oughta Know", a rallying cry from the same battle to separate sex and self-image. The busy bass- and percussion-heavy version of "Cruel", conversely, abandons any pretense of rationality and spirals into banshee wails against battering accompaniment, like the soundtrack to a hallucinatory dream of paralyzed indecision. And the opening triptych concludes with a supple rendition of "Cornflake Girl", Tori's first adventure in drum-loop rock, which has aged surprisingly gracefully, Chamberlain's human versions of the original loops helping to give this edition an expansive elegance where the old version was a little claustrophobic.
Tori's piano, reduced to a supporting role through most of the first act, finally starts taking control with "Bells for Her", Caton retreating to ambience and Chamberlain to a spare, sketchy rhythm, leaving Tori and John Evans to what is, at points, nearly a piano/bass duet, even more reminiscent of early Kate Bush than it was to begin with. A calm, confident "Girl", probably the song least changed from its album incarnation, and one of the few Little Earthquakes tracks never heretofore reused anywhere, strikes me as the stand-in for all the early singles ("China", "Crucify", "Silent All These Years" and "Winter") omitted here, as if Tori couldn't figure out how to choose between them.
There used to be a lot of between-song storytelling, in the early days, and this tour was notably short on it (and Alanis, never prone to much audience interaction anyway, rarely said anything but "thank you" in between songs), but the album does have a charming, anthropomorphic introduction to the b-side "Cooling", which gives you a decent idea of Tori's weird half-mystical, half-profane persona. The glimpse we got of it at the Great Woods show was rather more bracing: a couple male fans in front of the stage must have been talking during the introduction to one of Tori's solo numbers ("Winter", maybe?), and after a few bars she broke off, whirled on her bench and snapped "Hey guys, eat my pussy. Shut up, or show me your dicks." Discussing this outburst, after the show, my companions and I were divided. To me, it seemed like a quintessential Tori moment, a deliberate (conceivably even planned) gesture of gender-stereotype reversal in the same vein as her sprawled piano posture and numerous frank explications of feminine sexual thought-processes. My friend Kathy, attending as an Alanis partisan, acknowledged the intent but contended, plausibly, that sexual politics can't actually be reversed that way, that a woman can't use rhetorical sexual demands as aggression the way a man can. If Tori gets away with it, it's because the stage and the security troops tip the balance of power in her favor. In a way, though, I think that's Tori's point. Gender equality remains a dishearteningly distant goal, in some fields, and it's tempting to conclude that the idea has immutable physiological limits. Similar past claims about race, however, now seem embarrassing, so I think it's productive and important for us to keep asking questions. Sometimes, in fact, the questions change the answers.
"Cooling" is the beginning of the mid-show solo section. As of from the choirgirl hotel I believe that Tori has learned to express herself in full arrangements and studio constructions as fluently as with her hands on piano keys, so I don't resent the electricity of the rest of the set, and diligent b-side and video collectors, at least, can find an album or two of solo live performances among Tori's older releases, even without recourse to bootlegs, so there's little reason to complain that there aren't more of them here. Still, though, Tori's relationship with her piano was what first captivated me about her, and her control of dynamics and tempo, when they're alone on stage with her songs, is what first convinced me that she is one of the most extraordinary human beings with whom I share an era. She can hold her own as part of a band, but however well I think she, Caton, Chamberlain and Evans do their jobs, when they assume their ensemble identity, a piece of my heart never stops thinking that they are only diluting her aura. I respect and admire the assaultive clamor of the band sections of this show, but when the rest of them leave the stage, and Tori forgets about noise and just plays, my heart melts. "Cooling" is one of my favorite Tori b-sides, perhaps second only, at the moment, to "Sweet Dreams". It and "Cloud on My Tongue" could be nobody but Tori. "Mr. Zebra", in between them, is impish and bouncy, an emissary of her playful side, a role that in earlier shows would probably have been played by "Happy Phantom" or "Leather".
The band returns a few bars into "Sugar", another b-side, which in concert seemed so radically transformed to me that I didn't recognize it until the chorus, but when I get out the original for comparison I find that the difference is actually subtle, the abstract accompaniment in the original buried way under Tori's voice so the song seems basically continuous, where in this live version the verses are martial and insistent, the choruses exquisite and restrained, the transitions between the two jarring. The band contributes hardly more than atmosphere and a subliminal cadence to most of a slow, heartbreaking "Little Earthquakes", but joins in for a pair of redemptively cacophonic crescendi towards the end. "Space Dog", one of the stranger impulses on Under the Pink, is no less odd as a concert choice, but the band leans into the slinky verse groove animatedly, and the measured transitions out of the brittle choruses almost reach the epic poise of Marillion. "Waitress" vents the most compressed, vindictive fury, but at our show she did both "Waitress" and "Professional Widow", so the album gets off comparatively lightly. And the set ends, not with a familiar hit or an effusive flourish, but with yet another b-side, the muted, jazzy, "Purple People". For all the rock-band facade of the rest of the show, Tori disappears not with a flash and a detonation, but like fog dissipating.
The original plan was for the companion disc to be a b-sides collection, something Tori's catalog badly needs (the Australian tour-promoting two-disc edition of Under the Pink, with eleven early b-sides on the second CD, is now as hard to find as many of the singles themselves), but maybe the presence of three b-sides on the concert disc made her think twice about that scheme, and in the end, if we are take her explanation literally, another album of studio material coalesced almost by accident. And so, little more than a year after from the choirgirl hotel, the orbiting half of this package presses eleven new songs upon us. I almost resent this. There were two-year gaps before each of the previous albums, and that felt like about the right spacing, to me, time enough for one album to take its place in my life and anticipation to build for the next one. I needed the years without Tori albums to attend to other matters, to keep my subjective musical universe from collapsing entirely into her gravitational field. And so, perversely, I tried to hold this record at a distance, deliberately keeping it in rotation with other things, not allowing it to monopolize my life the way from the choirgirl hotel did for weeks. I already know, from preliminary drafts, that Tori will have two records on my Best of the Nineties list, and will be my choice for the artist of the decade. Squeezing in another album before the eligibility deadline is unnecessary and unfair, and it's hard to see what could be gained. But then again, if she really threw it together so quickly, and essentially without premeditation, maybe it wouldn't be that different, in spirit, from the slated b-sides disc, a collection of extraneous impulses primarily interesting to collectors and completists, regardless of their exact discographic status. So I opened my heart for them, just a little ways, just enough to accept them for what they are, without demands or expectations. Pretend that these are Tori's apologies for cluttering so many of her recent singles with soulless remixes. She owes us for "God", "Professional Widow", "In the Springtime of His Voodoo", "Raspberry Swirl" and "Jackie's Strength", and at two songs per, that works out about right.
Ah, we are so cute when we rationalize, when we insist, inanely, that we are in control of our own reactions. I can no more channel these songs into convenient peripheral compartments than I can persuade a passing tornado to blow all the debris in my back yard, from a storm-interrupted tree-pruning and ivy-trimming session, into yard-waste bags. The live songs I can handle, with an insulating layer of librarian's detachment, so that the twinges of unearthly ecstasy, when the first two bars of a song resonate like you've just been informed that your guess about the structure of the afterlife is correct, are safely circumscribed by history, and etymology, and context. Against the new songs, however, I am wholly powerless.
And so I am left to quietly report what I would rather have grandly proclaimed, to observe, after the fact, what I always imagined I would bring myself to with choreographed fanfare: sometime in the middle of "glory of the 80's", my second or third time through this album, still thinking I can classify it without disrupting my life, and thinking, if I'd even realized it would be an issue, that my surrender to Tori was complete circa Boys for Pele, when I admitted her into the pantheon of my four, now five, favorite artists -- sometime about when Tori compresses a decade of extravagant folly into the image of a velvet hologram, I realize that there was one last regime to overthrow. Tori isn't one of my five favorite artists. I don't have five favorite artists, any more. I have one. Maybe those of you who didn't see your selves dissected and decoded in High Fidelity won't understand how anyone's self-image can pivot on a detail this small, but I've been describing myself to myself the same way for a decade, and now it's wrong. I was some other person, when I said Big Country was my favorite band, picking them over Kate Bush, Game Theory and Marillion, and Tori when she joined, for a web of obscure and mostly inexpressible reasons. It was an oblique way of evading judgment, actually, handing someone a reference they recognized (people my age usually remember "In a Big Country" and perhaps "Fields of Fire"), but didn't know enough about to evaluate (online self-selection and trips to the UK aside, I think I've met only one person, in the last decade, who knew there had been Big Country studio albums after Peace in Our Time, never mind how many, much less what they were). The sort of person who claims Big Country is their favorite band is a second-order obscurist, picking a hero that the mainstream won't know, but that the undergrounds won't know either. I learned all the ways people react, and the corresponding responses. Now I'll have to learn a new set. The objections I could merely shrug at, when all I staked myself to was liking Tori ("She's way too affected", "Kate Bush did it all better", "She used to be a metal chick, this whole sensitive piano thing is an act"), will now seem like personal attacks, for which I need prepared defenses (rough drafts: "Well, she's an artist, not a bureaucrat", "Actually, their vocal ranges partially overlap, and they both own pianos, but their lyrical, compositional and performance aesthetics are almost diametrically opposed", "You need to read fewer magazines, or at least better ones"). Big Country gave me effectively unlimited time in which to react, time to formulate my endorsement of a new record before it ever (or here, never) reached public awareness. I no longer have that luxury. I have attached an element of my personal well-being to a public index. You might hear new Tori songs before I do, an egregious violation of intimacy. I will have to learn to cope.
But fortunately, the only reason I'm in this predicament at all is that I've gone beyond trusting Tori to some other level where her impulses become my convictions without any intervening processing. I know, even before I've heard a new song, that it will tell a story from my life, because as soon as I hear it it will become a story from my life. All I have to do is hold still long enough for the transfer to take place. Instants later, I can neither recall nor imagine how these songs and I ever existed apart, how I ever had ideas about how songs should operate that these didn't inform. Listening to the white-noise swirl in the background of "Bliss", I wonder how I ever thought that songs should be built on silence, how it never occurred to me that the texture of the canvas could be as important to a song as a painting. How was I ever satisfied with bass lines that couldn't carry a song all by themselves, drum loops that didn't crackle in front of the song's path, guiding it like curling brooms? How did I fail to notice how hollow and uni-dimensional Nine Inch Nails songs sound without the spirits of Led Zeppelin and Sinéad O'Connor to elevate them above megaphone-distorted Depeche Mode? I think I once thought Tori's songs needed her voice or her piano to sound like hers, but "Juárez" is pounding and mangled, the vocals nearly inaudible, the piano a two-chord afterthought, like techno for atmospheric reentry, and yet it's unmistakable. "concertina", loops and swooping synth-strings, makes me wonder why every song about drinking doesn't sound like a ballad for a Russian princess. The pulsing "glory of the 80's" proves that Y Kant Tori Read was part of the same narrative all along, and I can't remember ever thinking otherwise. The sentimental piano and echoey mechanical drums of "Lust" pursue an oblique negotiation about blood and wires changing places, as if this was actually the argument that Kate's Hounds of Love never finished. Of course, "suede" reminds me, but I must always have known, Kristeen Young and Joni Mitchell and Alanis Morissette are clients of the same muse. Of course, "Josephine" says, the armies in "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" were always metaphorical. Of course, adds "riot poof", Stina Nordenstam and Grace Jones need each other. "Datura" is where Jane Siberry would have ended up if she'd veered towards industrial rock instead of jazz and Christmas music. Tori still sounds like Kate Bush sometimes, but Kate herself never sounded like The Kick Inside and Hounds of Love at once, the way "spring haze" does. And every aspiring singer since "A Case of You" must have had to do "1000 Oceans" for screen tests, else I wouldn't feel the hands of every one of their ghosts brushing Tori's as she sings it in turn, a century of earnest dreams all fulfilled at once, every individual ambition accomplished in its mere formulation, every sad, glorious song conflating sacrifice and love rolled up in this one, from "The Wing Beneath My Wings" to "Coming Up Close", from "Sister Christian" to "Sand and Water". Not one of the borders we've drawn on the ground, across the sky, down the aisles of record stores, can hold anything apart from anything else. We invent foreigners, to define ourselves by opposition, but the distinctions are impossibly fragile, and beg to be dispelled with a breath. Of course we've always known this. We only restrain ourselves from collapsing into each other's arms, or invent fanciful systems for distinguishing between the pair of perfectly suitable arms outstretched towards us and another we haven't found yet, because we want to take a moment, while our hands are still free, to paint pictures of our imminent bliss, before we vanish into it, to leave behind, to tell anyone who comes after where we've gone.
If there's any sense in which orbiting is a smaller work than from the choirgirl hotel, it isn't in the songs, taken one at a time. There are rougher edges here, creaks and snaps left audible, around the edges, that would have been resolved more decisively before, but a month into my time with this album, I'm only just starting to notice them. The two records almost seem reversed, to me, this one a sketch, when you peer closely at it, for what from the choirgirl hotel would later become. Considered in the order they were actually made, they form a progression more familiar to science than art, taking a complex, beautiful structure and trying to recreate it from fewer parts, fewer postulates, simpler rules. orbiting and from the choirgirl hotel have the same shape, and we reflexively demand uniqueness from art, so packaging it with the live album, or vice versa, is a wise precaution. People would have accused Tori of repeating herself, if she'd introduced this as her next step, but as a rapid sequel, of course it sounds similar, and as a bonus, who cares? The reason you rebuild systems this way in science, though, is to learn which parts of what you've learned are essential to its nature, and which are incidental artifacts of the way you used to see the world. And on this new foundation, unencumbered by everything you've devised ways to remove, you build something previously unimaginable. from the choirgirl hotel was a cathedral, to me, an artwork on a virtually incomprehensible scale, the album of the decade, and maybe, for a little while, my single favorite record in the world. But now I know it is doomed. orbiting doesn't initially look as magnificent, held up beside it, but in Tori's eyes I see she understands that under their coloring, the two albums are the same. Now she knows she can make the album of the decade in a month, at home, when everybody thought she was working on the liner notes to a b-side collection. If the next album doesn't unravel the universe, it will only be because she loves us too much to tell us the truth about ourselves. Or she's found our truths, but she's thought of some ways to improve them.
Tori Amos: Raspberry Swirl
If we're about to evolve into a higher state, though, I have a bunch of singles I'd like to clear out of my way. Can you bear my librarian mode, again, a little longer? Some of these have been sitting around for quite a while, and age hasn't necessarily improved them. This three-track European Raspberry Swirl single is entirely remixes of what was, in my opinion, a perfectly good dance anthem before anybody messed with it. The "Lip Gloss" version is a pretty conventional single edit, the ends trimmed a little, the brilliantly spare drum loop obtusely made busier, and some mindless panning added in a couple places, presumably at the behest of a club DJ with a stereo-spectrum fetish. All changes are for the worse, it seems to me, but at least there aren't that many of them. The "Sticky Extended Vocal Mix", on the other hand, perpetrates all the current dance-remix crimes against the song, replacing a distinctive drum track with a canned one, chopping up the vocals so they no longer have any logic or momentum, and then distending the song to twice its natural length, which must not be annoying to people who have destroyed their sense of time with drugs, else I can't imagine who the intended audience is. Andy Gray redeems himself partially, in my estimation, with the other version, "Scarlet Spectrum Feels", which makes the song into an eight-minute ambient collage. Arguably this second exercise shows as little cognizance of the song's intrinsic virtues as the first, and if Gray wants to be the Future Sound of London I don't see why he can't do it on his own time, but at least I don't have a sinking feeling, throughout, that I know exactly what tired techno mannerism is coming next.
Tori Amos: Cruel / Raspberry Swirl
The American version of the single is an anachronistic double-A-side, sort of. The version of "Raspberry Swirl" is the Lip Gloss remix, and "Cruel", given similar treatment, becomes the "Shady Feline Mix". The ambient version of "Raspberry Swirl" is included, the techno remix is not. The fourth track is labeled "Mainline Cherry - Ambient Spark", but unless there's a usage of "Ambient" the OED doesn't know about that means "chopped up", this isn't a very descriptive name. Remixer Albert Cabrera's discontent with the original seems to be that it doesn't repeat a tinny, pensive, monotonous quadruplet every two-and-a-half seconds.
Tori Amos: Jackie's Strength (remixes)
The forty-four-minute remix single for "Jackie's Strength" is extremely generous, in the sense that getting beaten up is spending quality time with your assailant. Cabrera and Warren Rigg provide six different remixes of the title song. "Wedding Cake Edit", which attempts to turn it into Haddaway's "What Is Love?", would be offensively syrupy even if the underlying song were Roxette. "Wedding Cake Club Mix", more than twice as long, argues that the first version was merciful, if nothing else. "Wedding Cake Meltdown Mix" suggests that the remixers should be locked in a coffin with "Macarthur Park" piped in on infinite repeat until their brains liquefy. Neither "One Rascal Dub #1" nor "#2" do anything to contradict my standing conviction that I will hate anything with "Dub" in the title, and "Bonus Beats", the final track, makes me wonder why KFC doesn't offer Extra Gristle as a side-order.
King Britt and John Wicks' two remixes of "Father Lucifer", on the other hand, are respite from the "Jackie's Strength" mutilations, and irk me somewhat less on their own, as well. The "Sylkscreen Remix" takes Tori's vocal and slivers of the piano and bass parts, lays them over a quick, dry new drum track, drum-and-bass-ish but seemingly composed for the occasion, adds some storm noises, and comes up with a clattering new song whose practical purpose eludes me, which I consider a mark in its favor. "Sylkscreen Instrumental", the other remix, takes the vocal off (predictably), and adds some extra eerie synth-string bits, which don't replace the vocals, exactly, but give the song a different understated focal point.
Tori Amos: Jackie's Strength
There was a real single for "Jackie's Strength" though, too, with a couple non-album b-sides, just like the old days. "Never Seen Blue" is simple and shimmery, just Tori and her piano and some vocal processing, abandoned early and relegated to a b-side, if I had to guess, because the breathy coda isn't enough to distinguish it from "Pretty Good Year". The slow, haunting, gospel-tinged, Emmylou-Harris-like "Beulah Land", however, is a folk-spiritual on the order of Tori's version of "Home on the Range", and I wouldn't be astonished if Tori tries an album of neo-traditional Americana before she's through. The disc also includes QuickTime versions of the videos for "Raspberry Swirl" and "Jackie's Strength", the latter of which, a slow-motion, black-and-white travelogue with Tori as a bride taking a taxi to (away from?) her wedding, is one of the few music videos I'd bother salvaging if the medium were being junked, but both of these are also available are on Tori's Complete Videos compilation, where they can be seen at TV size, resolution and continuity.
Tori Amos: Bliss
The two singles from to venus and back are content to add more concert recordings. The two here are Boys for Pele's "Hey Jupiter" and yet another early b-side, "Upside Down", both in solo renditions, and I'm oddly charmed by the idea that those of us who developed our taste for these performances from old b-sides can still, even now that Tori has put out a full live album, keep collecting them the same way.
Tori Amos: 1000 Oceans
The single for "1000 Oceans" adds two more, an arrestingly frail "Baker Baker" the audience actually shuts up for, and a riveting, yelp-punctuated, seven-minute version of "Winter", puzzling as a b-side only because I think it may be the best extant demonstration of what Tori can do with these songs all by herself, and in her place I think I would have swapped it onto the album in place of "Cloud on My Tongue". The last minute or two, in particular, are music pushed as close to the brink of non-existence as I believe you will ever hear it.
The disc also contains, in some composite web/CD-ROM format that you have to have an internet connection to do anything with (but which delivers a full-speed full-screen image nearly up to broadcast quality), the videos for both "1000 Oceans" and "Bliss". The one for "Bliss" is half standard performance footage, half close-ups of fans, and not too interesting to see more than once, but the video for "1000 Oceans" is even more breathtaking than the one for "Jackie's Strength", to me, a time-lapse portrait of a city street seen from within a plexiglas box in which Tori alternately crouches, collapses and sings. Days pass, lovers pass, the weather changes, a riot blossoms and scatters, people peer at Tori or ignore her, parents try to explain to their children what she's doing there, and by extension what they're doing there. And their presence, inquisitive or oblivious, makes them all the subjects of the song, no longer a love song between two people, now a benediction to an entire planet, neither the walls of the box nor the wall of my computer screen thick enough to keep us apart.
various: No Boundaries
This may seem plangently ironic, since a frightening number of my hours revolve around this web site, and my column exists in no other form, but I still don't think of music (including, emphatically, my own) as real until it's committed to a physical medium, so Tori's song "Merman", which was given away online as a Tower Records promotion, didn't count, to me, until it was included on this Kosovar-refugee benefit album. The months between are my loss, obviously, as it's another of her more remarkable non-album songs, a simple piano part accompanying an entrancing, fluttering, double-tracked auto-duet. The rest of the album, however, doesn't have much to offer me. I detest Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, KORN, Bush, Oasis, the Wallflowers and Jamiroquai, I don't like the Neil Young, Ben Folds Five, Indigo Girls or Peter Gabriel songs here, and the Black Sabbath song is an uninteresting remix of one of the two new tracks on Reunion. Sarah McLachlan's crinkly concert version of "Mary" is very nice, though, and there's "Merman", and then there's a blistering live version of Alanis Morissette's strident anti-mystic rant "Baba". My fears of faction incompatibility at the Tori/Alanis show turned out to be superfluous. Alanis' every move was greeted with a collective shriek marginally louder than the one for each of Tori's twitches, according to my uncalibrated internal meter, but I can't imagine either of them, on stage, feeling anything but waves of hysterical adoration. Alanis' show was more comfortable with its rock ambitions, I think, than Tori's, but Alanis is a mainstream rock performer, and Tori is not. Alanis also had a better set to work with, although it occurred to me later, reading about another stop on the tour, that the random rectangles of silver fabric suspended above Tori might have been screens for slide or film projections that for some reason they were unable to get working the night I saw them.
Tori and Alanis are both incredibly adroit or astonishingly awkward performers, depending on how much voluntary control you think they have over their body language. Tori's long skirt, at this show, obscured her pelvic piano interactions somewhat, but Alanis was very much her deranged, wildly unglamorous stage self. She has an even more ungainly hippie fashion sense than Tori, which is saying something, and she spends the entirety of every song careening around the edges of the stage at a pace, and in a pattern, that bears no detectable relation to the rhythm of the music. I've seen convulsing homeless people exhibit more balletic fluidity. I assume she does it intentionally, as surely she didn't get through her mall-pop youth without being conscripted into a dance video or two, but it looks quite artless, as if she's simply concentrating on the words to the song, and barely aware that her body is amusing itself, restlessly, while she sings. One Boston reviewer, panning the show, claimed that her singing became overbearing as she approached the front of the stage, and inaudible as she cycled to the back, but since she was singing directly into a microphone, no matter which direction she was facing, and I never noticed any volume fluctuations from my mid-house seats, I am drawn to the conclusion that the reviewer, unbeknownst to themselves, is deaf, and infers volume by lip-reading. This would explain a few other inexplicable assertions in the review, actually, and if we also assume that the writer is not especially familiar with English (a notion that their prose did not contradict), we have a good theory about how they became convinced that the audience, who were singing along with Tori and Alanis throughout, were irretrievably confused, and perhaps a hint about the otherwise inscrutable decision to describe one of the most famous and successful performers in North America by comparing her to the lead singer of "the best rock band in France", although there maybe I'm underestimating how heavily Boston's burgeoning community of expatriate Parisians relies on the Boston Phoenix for retroactive aesthetic assessments of local cultural events.
Alanis Morissette: Thank U
Alanis' set, to nobody's surprise, was considerably easier to predict than Tori's. She did one or two more of the harsher tracks from Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie than I expected ("Baba", "Sympathetic Character" and "Can't Not", where I would have picked one of those), and left out "Joining You", one of the new singles, but she covered the rest of the hits, including her non-album songs from the City of Angels and Dogma soundtracks. The only real missed opportunity, it seemed to me, was not flipping the order of the two songs in her final encore, so that the show would end with "Thank U", the perfect farewell, instead of "Ironic".
The b-sides to the singles from her first album were all live recordings, many of them acoustic, as if Alanis was as surprised as anybody to find herself with so many singles that it became an issue, but this time she thought ahead and stockpiled a few extras. The first of them, "Pollyanna Flower", the middle track on this advance single for "Thank U", is sinuous, caterwauling and charged, somewhere between "Baba" and "I Was Hoping". The third track here is the demo version of "Uninvited", a dramatic, symphonic epic in its City of Angels form, here literally just a repetitive one-finger piano part and two vocal lines. "Chopsticks" is more intricate and propulsive than this accompaniment, yet the difference between the two versions doesn't seem significant to me. Alanis' voice defines them, so it's of little consequence whether there's an orchestra behind her or a plastic woodpecker with a xylophone.
Alanis Morissette: Joining You #1
Part one for "Joining You" uses the "Melancholy Mix" of the title track, a minor variation on the album version that I don't like as well. The new song is "These Are the Thoughts", an oscillating piano line much like the one in "Uninvited" augmented by the rest of the band, over which Alanis skitters through a stream-of-consciousness text that doesn't seem as successful to me as the ones on the album, though conceivably this is less a reflection of the song than how familiar with it I have or haven't taken the time to become. Track three is a solid, stately, soaring BBC-session performance of "Thank U", her band coiling themselves around it like they've been playing it for years.
Alanis Morissette: Joining You #2
Part two backs up the album version of "Joining You" with a BBC version of "Your House", the hidden a cappella track from Jagged Little Pill, for which roles have thoughtfully been devised for the band since then, turning it into a pretty, pensive lament. The other track is a Bridge-School-benefit acoustic recording of a non-album song called "London", which doesn't sound to me like she and Glen Ballard had quite finished writing it yet, or even completely made up their minds what key it's in.
Alanis Morissette: So Pure #1
That's it for the extra songs, apparently, as the two singles for the ebullient "So Pure" are forced to fall back on alternate versions of album tracks. Part one has a becalmed, but potentially intriguing, acoustic version of "I Was Hoping" and an ill-advised six-minute gadget-burdened remix of "So Pure" in which Butch Vig tries to turn it into a Garbage song, apparently not noticing that unlike Shirley Manson, Alanis doesn't need 128 tracks of bedlam, kabuki makeup and the wardrobe department from Lost in Space to make an impression.
Alanis Morissette: So Pure #2
Part two has a growling live version of "Would Not Come" that actually works better, for me, than the one on the album, and a jittery acoustic version of "So Pure" that just makes me hope, more desperately, that there are other singles to come, and that one of them includes the version of "So Pure" Alanis and the band did on Letterman, one of the most beatific things I've ever seen on television. Alanis even plays guitar on it, and while I couldn't, watching closely, either on Letterman or at Great Woods, convince myself conclusively that her guitar was actually plugged into anything in the public signal chain, if it wasn't, it will be next time. She plays harmonica, and they even brought out a flute for her when they played "That I Would Be Good". Alanis is one of my heroes not because I think she's about to alter the fabric of reality, but almost the opposite. She is unapologetically flawed, and fearlessly mortal. She's a role model, to me, all the more so because she's still learning many lessons I've already been through. We need role models against which to mold our past, just as badly as we need ones to guide our future. Alanis is the healthiest kind of hero, one with no super-powers at all. If my feelings about Tori are dangerously close to religious transport, Alanis is an antidote, grounding for my flights. I don't know what her next album will be like. It could be dismal. Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie was a huge gamble, and on many scales other than mine, a bet she didn't win. Maybe the next album will lose me, too. That's half the reason I love this one this so ardently. I cherish each song, each new version, because they are triumphs in the face of the most mundane and inevitable math. Her music is given every available chance to be utterly ordinary, and each time, somehow, she finds the inner strength to transcend them. Either you have a gift like Tori's, or you don't; she might be a peer or an idol, depending, but she can't be a role model, because she isn't like us. Alanis is like us. Alanis is us. Anything she can do, we can learn. She is flawed and thus perfectible, mortal and thus redeemable, vulnerable and thus there for us to help, in return. Anything she can give us, we can give each other, and give back to her. She is one of us, unwilling to cower where she lands. She is all of us, believing we don't have to live hurt. It doesn't matter whether you like her or not; that weird, radiant, too-large grin, when she's happy, has no more to do with mass approval or fame than your smile or mine. Alanis smiles because she's untangled something, and world makes a little more sense than it did a second ago. It's not a hard trick. Knots are easy to find, and often even easier to undo. If you'd like to smile more, just reach out.