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Tori Amos
From the Choirgirl Hotel
(Atlantic)

Tori Amos has followed her muse to the end of some pretty thin branches, documenting her soul's perpetual churning. So far fans have happily crawled out there with her. Little Earthquakes (1991), Under The Pink (1994), and Boys for Pele (1996) made a pop goddess of the classically trained Amos despite her complicated arrangements and daring, abstract, lyrical style. Amos calls her songs "girls," saying the brilliant collages come to her as if by chance, blending snatches of time and personal scenes and emotions into art that does not necessarily need to be understood to be believed. But it is Amos's own struggle for comprehension that informs the more earthbound sound of her fourth solo record, From the Choirgirl Hotel.

Written in the aftermath of a miscarriage and inspired by her struggle to embrace life again, this latest release finds Amos turning her elegant anger and bitter sorrow to the ground, rooting for truth in rhythm-heavy songs that ultimately accept life's contradictions. Amos recorded live with a studio band this time out, and the tasteful playing of Steve Caton (guitar), Matt Chamberlain (drums), and Beck bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen proves a supple and strong complement to her aggressive, fluid keyboard work.

Throughout the record Amos challenges the wisdom of fate, the politics of sacrifice, and the incendiary nature of beautiful religions. The musical accompaniment runs from acoustic to electronica, but the whole is infused with urgency and grandeur through the tumbling, percussive piano playing that is her hallmark.

The album's first track, "Spark," is a classic Amos piece. "She's convinced she could hold back a glacier/But she couldn't keep Baby alive" she sings with eerie calm, as creeping ivy lines of piano and electric guitar intertwine and escalate, finally prodding a violent response to the deep feeling of vulnerability. "Liquid Diamonds" also covers familiar but interesting ground, with the sizzling percussion chugging like a freight train in the background as Amos's piano trips delicately, and at times dissonantly, across the tune.

The distorted, sexually thorny rose gardens depicted in "Raspberry Swirl," "Cruel," and "Hotel" contrast with simple love songs such as "Northern Lad." "I guess you go too far/When pianos try to be guitars" she sings with a quiver, slowly stretching the bittersweet ballad into an aching, tremulous epic by the tune's end.

"Jackie's Strength" is another sentient piece, a photograph of a Sixties childhood and Seventies youth set to strings by the Sinfonia of London. From David Cassidy lunch boxes to the virgin who always gets backstage, Amos views her girlish era through the prism of Jackie Kennedy, keeping a brave face in the hardest of times.

Some of the lyrics here will be maddeningly obscure to those who prefer things neatly laid out, but one certainly doesn't have to grasp the intent to enjoy the lush sound and the record's emotional content. These "girls" are lovely and wicked and smart, and Amos is at her best in their company.

-- Robin Myrick

Bap Kennedy
Domestic Blues
(E-Squared)

It's hard to say enough in praise of Steve Earle, the brilliant singer-songwriter who told Nashville to piss off and lived to tell the tale. In the last five years, Earle has kicked a drug habit, emerged from the hoosegow with renewed passion, and won critical acclaim for post-sobriety efforts such as Train a Comin', I Feel Alright, and El Corazón. Most impressive, his boutique label (E-Squared) has managed to turn out brilliant records on a consistent basis (6 String Drag's High Hat and Cheri Knight's Northeast Kingdom come to mind).

The latest of the species is Domestic Blues, a collection of country blues from Irish songwriter Bap Kennedy. For those of you keeping score, Kennedy is a former member of the late Eighties outfit Energy Orchard. But his music here is a far cry from the Orchard's clangy, bombastic brand of rock. Under the tutelage of producers Earle and Ray Kennedy (no relation) -- the so-called Twangtrust -- Kennedy has skewed his sound toward acoustic, rootsy settings that suit his sweetly infectious melodies and throaty tenor.

Tunes such as "The Way I Love Her" and "My Money" sound like vintage Earle compositions, raucous foot-stompers whose layered arrangements yield riches on each successive listen. "Unforgiven" is guided by the gentle arpeggios of Peter Rowan's classical guitar, while the title track showcases dobro and lap-steel ace Jerry Douglas, whose instrument sounds by turns like a ukulele and a clarinet. Nanci Griffith lends her airy backing vocals to the gentle "Ghost of Belfast," and Keith Weir contributes piano riffs to the delicious Dixieland vamp of "Vampire." Earle himself pops in throughout the album, playing everything from an archtop guitar to his handy twelve-string acoustic.

Tin whistles and fiddles appear here and there, but the disc never grows self-conscious in its incorporation of Celtic sounds. The sonic elements are allowed to intermingle with a subtlety that keeps the focus on the boozy, rollicking mood. Kennedy himself sounds like a young, and lightly lilted, version of Earle. Both men revel in live performance, which is why the dozen cuts here took a total of four days to record. And that off-the-cuff spirit may explain why Kennedy sees fit to include, as a hidden track, a duo with Earle in which they belt out an impromptu cover of the Ewan MacColl folk standard "Dirty Old Town." Priceless.

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