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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.

-- Steve Almond

Spoon
A Series of Sneaks
(Elektra)

Here's a wake-up call to anyone who thinks major labels manufacture bland, sound-alike rock acts. Spoon has proved beyond a shadow of doubt that rock bands can manufacture their own blandness without any help from international entertainment conglomerates. After squandering a Matador Records deal on an album (1996's Telephono) that sounded a little like the Pixies and an EP (1997's Soft Effects) that sounded a lot like the Pixies, Spoon's self-titled Elektra debut shows that no amount of unnecessary studio gloss can outperform, in terms of flavorlessness, good ol' dull musicianship.

Spoon opens with "Utilitarian," featuring a driving guitar riff copped from Bowie's "The Jean Genie" and vocals phrased in an accent that sounds vaguely like the singer from Radiohead. (Spoon is from Austin, Texas; its two remaining original members boast the ready-for-rock-stardom names Britt Daniel and Jim Eno.) They're still interested in the sort of loud/soft dynamics that recalled the Pixies back when Spoon recorded on the cheap. Now that Spoon is overproduced, even a Pixies fan would be unlikely to look kindly upon their apparent reverence toward Boston's masters of postpunk power-pop. "The Minor Tough," "Reservations," the stuttering "Car Radio" (so much driving, yet no motion), and "Metal School" feature fine riffs but no appreciation of texture or subtlety. They're not so much minimalist as minimal.

"No You're Not" is a cute little post-ironic break-up song, complete with handclaps and a well-executed jumping-to-falsetto vocal hook ("I never thought a kiss could be/So cold"). For some reason, though, what would have been Spoon's best shot at a modern rock radio hit is only a minute and 40 seconds long. Perhaps they're planning to sell it for a beer commercial instead.

On the last track, "Advance Cassette," Spoon busts out the minor chords and the vintage Revolver backward guitar effects. The song offers the album's only sustained attempt at full-blown melodic structure, and succeeds. But at the same time, it's almost astonishingly cynical, coming across like Spoon imagined their audience too crass to appreciate their taste for the Pixies and so tacked on a bit of Beatles at the end.

-- Adam Heimlich

The Box Tops
Tear Off!
(Last Call)

Five years after he made peace with his power-pop past and revived his Seventies cult group Big Star, alt-rock icon Alex Chilton has gone even further back -- to the Box Tops, the mid-Sixties group with whom a teenage Chilton cut the blue-eyed Memphis soul standards "The Letter," "Cry Like a Baby," and "Soul Deep." Tear Off!, issued on the French Last Call label, reunites Chilton and original Box Tops Bill Cunningham, John Evans, Danny Smythe, and Gary Talley for a set of blues, rockabilly, and rock covers, along with a few originals from bassist Cunningham and the inevitable skimming of "The Letter." The results? Not as bad as you'd think, especially if you've been keeping up with Chilton's listless, lazy solo work over the last fifteen or so years.

True, he still can't be bothered with actually writing songs (no loss, really, considering the wretched quality of his recent attempts -- e.g., "Lost My Job," "Don't Be a Drag"), and his voice is a long way from being what it once was, but throughout Tear Off! Chilton sings with enough passion to suggest he's either having a ball or at least interested in turning in a decent performance. And he does.

Egged on by the percolating rhythm section of Cunningham and drummer Smythe, and bolstered by the organ and guitar work of Evans and Talley, Chilton tears voraciously into "Wang Dang Doodle," "Treat Her Right," and "Flying Saucer Rock and Roll," while "Soothe Me," "I'm in Love," and "It Tears Me Up" feature his best pure-soul vocals since he made his gravel-gargling mark with these guys 30 years ago. It ain't like the old days, sure, but as reunions go, it's more fun than anything the Who or the Eagles ever conjured up. As for that new reading of "The Letter," however, it should've never left the mailbox. (223 av. P. Brossolette, 92120, Montrouge, France)

-- John Floyd

Patty Griffin
Flaming Red
(A&M)

Patty Griffin's quietly sublime 1996 debut, Living with Ghosts, drew comparisons to Ricki Lee Jones, Bonnie Raitt, and Lucinda Williams. Those comparisons should be laid to rest with the release of Flaming Red. Where Ghosts relied solely on acoustic guitar and bluesy vocal phrasing, Griffin's new collection places her at the helm of her own band. And damn, do they rock.

The title track is a two-minute scorcher that combines a wall of swirling guitars, a squalling harp, and Kenny Aronoff's thumping backbeat, daring the diminutive Griffin to outshout the din (which she does). The funky thump of "One Big Love" gives way to the wailing pop shimmer of "Carry Me," with lush organ fills courtesy of Jay Joyce.

Griffin's new, noisier approach suits her most common thematic concern -- the jagged underside of romance -- and songs such as "Wiggley Fingers" and "Big Daddy" give her room to roam vocally, from piercing declamations to vengeful snarling. On "Tommy," her dark ode to a young gay man who commits suicide, Griffin sounds positively morose. "Raised his hand in homeroom," she sings. "For the morning attendance/And to pledge allegiance to the gloom."

The disc occasionally suffers from overly dense production. On songs such as "Peter Pan" and "Christina," a surplus of guitars, keyboards, and strings serves to obscure Griffin's normally strong melodic lines. And her voice, a vibrant alto, feels lost in the cluttered soundscape. But these complaints are minor, relative to the dividends. It was inevitable that Griffin would take the plunge into the world of electric rock and Flaming Red does so, for the most part, with grace and gusto.

-- Steve Almond

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