It's difficult to write about Tori Amos without acknowledging her prodigious talent, and harder still to sanction that talent without serious reservations. Classically trained from an early age to tickle the ivories, the North Carolina-born Amos struggled for years to find her place in the musical food chain. While still in her teens, she was drop-kicked from Baltimore's prestigious Peabody Conservatory for "improvising," and made her recording debut as if she were hell-bent on the cut-out bin, fronting the ignominious hard-rock failure Y Kant Tori Read?.
But after boning up on her spelling -- not everyone wants to be the vice-president -- Amos retrenched for renaissance, and emerged with her debut LP Little Earthquakes as a sensitive female singer-songwriter. You know the kind: They sing about feelings, usually with unbridled passion and trenchant tone-poetry. Sometimes they'll unnerve you with the accuracy of their insights. Sometimes they'll touch on long-dormant truths. And sometimes they'll send you screaming to the Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia, to sprinkle some sacrificial motor oil on Duane Allman's grave.
With a singing style reliant on piercing high notes and extreme intonations, Amos resembles Kate Bush around the vocal cords, and the similarity doesn't end there. Like Bush, Amos writes ornate, literary songs that address such diverse topics as memory, pain, identity, pain, identity, memory, and pain. Here she is, going under in a sea of childhood memories ("Mother"). Here she is, singing a grim tale of sexual consternation ("Tear in Your Hand"). Here she is, flagellating herself for self-flagellation ("Crucify"). As depressing as this approach may be -- with song titles like "Winter," "Tear in Your Hand," and "Happy Phantom," this isn't exactly the Kingsmen -- Amos keeps her lyrics from lapsing into effete laments by injecting queen-size doses of bracing, brutal honesty.
Though they're written in the breathless rush of diary prose, the songs refuse to shrink from ugly truths. "Me And a Gun" relates a chilling narrative of rape and rage played out on the hood of a determined boyfriend's Cadillac, and "Silent All These Years" traffics in wickedly sarcastic sexual politics -- "So you found a girl who thinks really deep thoughts/What's so amazing about really deep thoughts/Boy you best pray I bleed real soon/How's that thought for you?" And short of Marianne Faithfull, there's little as erotically caustic as the snarling parting shot of "Precious Things" ("I wanna smash the faces of those beautiful boys those Christian boys/So you can make me cum that doesn't make you Jesus").
Now conducting a solo acoustic tour that brings her to West Palm this weekend, Amos is proving an even surer bet live than canned. With her ear-splitting contralto jacked to raise the roof -- in the close quarters of a theater, she recalls not only Bush but Joni Mitchell and even shock-treuse Diamanda Galas -- she strips her songs of their lush string trappings and swooning chorales and breaks them down to the bare 88. With more powerful keyboard work than their album counterparts, the stage performances hit like pumping piano rock filtered through deliberate, gynocentric melodrama -- Jerry Lee Remick, if you will. There's hardly a light moment to be found; the evening's only stab at flirtation, the Tiny-Tim-tiptoes-through-the-tulips-with-Sacher-Masoch ballad, "Leather," oversells its coquetry so much that it's less erotic than eerie.
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Amos's talent is so distinctive, in fact, that it infiltrates, and even overpowers, songs she hasn't written. Without any post-Earthquakes material in the show, Amos pads out her 90 minutes with a handful of covers in which she inflicts her own affectations upon other people's songs. While there may be an interesting idea behind the feminist repossession of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love," the Rolling Stones' "Angie," and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the appropriated tunes are sadly undistinguished musical events. Amos's performance style, so well-suited to her own calligraphic compositions, merely stultifies more rhythmically dependent material, and the reinterpretations are less subversive than substandard, less Women's Lib than Women's Liberace. (If the prospect of an earnest, fully comprehensible version of "Teen Spirit" is enough to curdle your Sub Pop, you've located the problem.)
Five years from now, Amos could be a major force in pop music, an artist who has learned to transform her idiosyncracies into breathtaking artistry, the way Joni Mitchell did with Blue, the way Tim Buckley did with Hello/Goodbye. Or else she could be playing the lounge shift at Comfort Inns, picking out "MacArthur Park" or "Do It to Me One More Time" while traveling salesmen become traveling salesmen jokes. As she faces the prospect of the crucial second album, Amos finds herself framed by the seismic dilemma outlined in the striking title song that closes Little Earthquakes -- no matter how small the current tremors, there's always the chance that the next time out will be the big one.
TORI AMOS performs at 8:00 p.m. Saturday at the Carefree Theater, 2000 S Dixie Hwy, West Palm Beach, 832-6397. Tickets are $14.