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Tori Amos: Total Badass


Tori Amos’ album Little Earthquakes changed my life. There have been wonderful moments in my life where music has done that: I’ve heard something and I knew my life was going to be different after that. Certain albums and artists have marked my life in that way: there’s a  B.C./A.D. situation going on where my life was now relative to the moment I heard something — a seismic shift occurs when something really grabs me musically. In 1992, Little Earthquakes came out and that marks my B.T./A.T. delineation.

Some albums just jump through the speakers and the fact that this album was named for a natural disaster is apropos because Tori is an unbridled force of nature on this album. Tori Amos simply pops on this album whether she’s slamming her piano in raucous chaos in the bridge of “Precious Things” or she whispers a capella — haunting, stripped, naked, and raw as she does in “Me and Gun”. The quietest, most somber moments in the album have equal emotional impact as the highest decibal, highest energy moments: there’s no turning away when listening to this album — it consumes you while you consume it.

This album is a painting, a real genuine work of art. Tori uses every color and tone on the palette; every brush stroke is placed perfectly and purposefully to convey and elicit visceral impact. Very few albums are perfect from first to last track, and it is rare that an album is so well crafted that I have to listen front to back every time, but Little Earthquakes not only captured my full attention — it demanded it. It’s that rare album that isn’t just a collection of songs, but a masterpiece that flows front to back in a narrative. It’s not conceptually built in a narrative like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which makes it even more interesting that the album can be seen as a whole, more of a mosaic of the artist’s life and thoughts rather than a linear storyline.

This will be the first in a series of posts where I put on the “cans” and do commentary on an album. I invite you to listen with me. I’m a musician by trade, but music is one of those wonderfully universal subjects where anyone can have a valid opinion. I know some non-musicians who love music, sometimes get a kick out of “hearing” what a musician might hear when they are listening to a song, and in that way, I would love to share my thoughts on this album and others.

Keep in mind, I do not in any way think my commentary is some kind of “expert” opinion because I’m a professional musician, it is just another subjective, albeit somewhat studied, opinion. It’s still an opinion, don’t let anyone tell you differently. While there are objective things to look at when it comes to the craft of music, and production, and song construction, at the end of the day, people like what they like, and I think that’s wonderful. I don’t begrudge anyone their taste in art or music and if you’re one of those that think being educated about the subject matter enhances the experience, then great. If you’re one of those who enjoys just listening and keeping the mystery of the art, that’s great too!

So here goes, listen along with me to the album Little Earthquakes and see if you hear what I hear:

Track 1: “Crucify”.

Here’s the music video. It’s not particularly interesting and actually a little silly. I hadn’t seen it before today. Unfortunate. I don’t know if it was for budgetary reasons or not (I certainly hope it wasn’t for artistic reasons!), but they really dropped the ball with an opportunity to make a wonderful mini-film with the rich themes and content in the song. Oh well, this is a musical analysis, not a video analysis. My recommendation is don’t bother with the video, just listen to the great music, I only put it up here in case you don’t actually have the album.

Tori loves to build tension in her songs and her production. She’s very effective at it. This song starts off with the first verse: sparse with her just her vocals, minimal instrumentation and just a percussive hi-hat and kick drum. Then a beautiful pre-chorus comes in and we hear for the first time her virtuosic piano arpeggiating as everything drops out but the kick drum. This pre-chorus is so beautiful and melodic (“I’ve been looking for a savior…”), it could serve as a chorus. There is nothing superfluous about her writing – the song is rich from front to back.

I don’t really consider Tori a “pop” artist, but she has the natural ability to make everything a “hook”. This song has a half dozen of them. By the time we get to the actual chorus (in two parts – again hook after hook) and the band fully kicks in, the minimalism of the verse and pre-chorus makes the full production of the chorus seem very large: background vocals, added percussion. The chorus as I mentioned is in two parts: part one (“why do we crucify ourselves) and part two (my heart’s sick of being in chains). Again, this is a testament to the richness of this song that there’s an A and a B chorus and both with distinct identities and focus, and yet they flow perfectly.

The chorus in this song is where we get the first indication that Tori Amos is really something special with her lyrical phrasing. There are many unique themes to Tori’s musical presentation and one of them that stands out to me is how she places notes and syllables vocally. Tori has her own vocal fingerprint where this is concerned, I’ve never heard an artist phrase like she does and that really separates the great ones. Quincy Jones said that’s how he could separate the great singers from just the good ones: where they placed their notes and how they phrased their syllables. I couldn’t agree more. I think this is one of the reasons I don’t really dig musicals and some theater singing, because the phrasing is usually stock and that simply isn’t as interesting to me.

Tori takes phrasing to its limits at the end of chorus A when she says “my heart’s sick of being in …” simply sounds like “my heart’s been in…” She “crams” all those syllables in that short segment, both melodically and percussively, which then allows Chorus B (“…chains” the end of the phrase and back end of the chorus) for her to run a wonderful melisma using only a single word that completes the lyric of the chorus. Two distinct and opposite approaches to phrasing separating the “two choruses”.

As great as that phrasing is, it’s probably more impressive in the verses (I will be coming back to the brilliance of her phrasing time and time again in this album). Most songwriters really can’t get too far away from couplets (or another simple rhyme scheme) because of the natural rhythm and phrasing that it inherently provides. It takes a shitload of extra creativity to be able to flow and rhythmically place lyrics that aren’t already contained in a stock, rhythmic pattern. This makes her lyric writing much richer because she can engage in a much more impressive narrative and/or stream of consciousness free flow of ideas. Her lyrics are unbounded by her ability to marry her musical phrasing with the poetry of the words.

Speaking of lyrics, let’s talk about the lyrics for a moment. As I said before, Tori is already more creative than most with her lyrics and phrasing, but she also has that wonderful ability to speak in her own unique voice. There is no fourth wall in her music, she is speaking 1st person and giving it to the listener raw. To what degree the narrative exactly reflects the artist is unimportant, the subject matter is profoundly intimate and delivered as not just window into the artist, but as an experience in a moment. It’s like the listener is not only in the room with Tori during her vignettes, but she is also allowing the listener inside her head, so much so that we don’t often know what’s real and what is created by her mind. The listener gets Tori’s inner narrative which goes well beyond the intimacy of just being an observer.

Let’s look at the first verse:

Every finger in the room is pointing at me

I want to spit in their faces then I get afraid of what that could bring

I got a bowling ball in my stomach I got a desert in my mouth

Figures that my courage would choose to sell out now

These are not the inner thoughts of a psychopath (although they could be!), this is the inner dialogue of anyone who has been uncomfortable in a social situation and feels judged. This sets the scene for the theme of the song: why do we feed each other’s most base inner thoughts? Why do we give each other the arsenal to feed and compound our own insecurities? Our inner self is devilish enough to provide self-loathing, knowing we have our own inner-dialogue to contend with, why would we possibly heap that pressure onto another human being with such overbearing criticism and judgment? Why do we crucify ourselves? Ultimately it’s a self-immolation in our mind, but the matches and fuel are given to us by society, moreover, religious society and its vicious self-loathing constructs.

She is asking this question while weaving in both literal and allegorical Christian allusions in the song. Religion will be a recurring theme for Tori. Specifically the outer, systematized, institutional religious persecution that is inherent in organized religion, resulting in the deeper, inner psychological persecution that results. Judgmental religion is rendered even more nefarious when it can control personal thoughts. Orwell knew about the destructive nature of institutions framing our language and our minds to create the horror of horrors: the institution not just being a part of our most intimate inner thoughts but actually manipulating them and controlling them to the full force of destroying any semblance of self.

With full knowledge that I may be projecting in emphasis of this religious-Orwellian theme, I’m certainly not making it up whole cloth. To some degree she equates religion with negative human emotions, “got enough guilt to start my own religion”. It definitely exists as a theme in Tori’s lyrics, but to what degree she is using religion allegorically to represent a mindfuck as opposed to religion actually being the instrument of mental torture, I leave that to each individual listener. I think in the song “Crucify” it’s a little bit of both: I think she is using religion generally (and the crucifixion story specifically) as the ultimate representation of abhorrent judgment working itself from the outside in. This religious institutional judgment (religious and institutional crucifixion of the masses): which then infects the populace — their fingers pointing in constant judgment (social crucifixion); which in turn leaves the individual no choice but to be in a continual state of self-judgment (self-crucifixion).

So the refrain “why do we crucify ourselves” is rhetorical. The answer is “we shouldn’t” — but we’re stuck. We want to hold on to the spiritual satisfaction we derive from comforting beliefs, but unfortunately we’re stuck with the negative elements that institutionalized religion brings.  No fuzzy feelings without the crushing pressure of judgment. Is there good in religion and/or life that we have to suffer to achieve? Is it obtainable in this life, or are we suffering the misery of this existence, only to get salvation after earthly torture. When does the religious promise of salvation come in to relieve the pain?

The protagonist in the song is looking for a savior (looking for them often in the seediest of situations: “in dirty sheets/streets” yet more condemnation, this time through the lens of religion which says sex is not beautiful, but shameful and disgusting) who will release her from the bad elements of religion (salvation cannot possibly be won through religion and all the nastiness that it entails, can it?). So according to the song, you’re stuck with both, “I gotta have my suffering so I can have my cross” and “you’re just an empty cage girl if you kill the bird”. This last line reversing the quixotic spiritual quest of throwing out the bathwater and keeping the baby.

Back to the music. After the initial chorus (in 3 wonderful stages) the song strips back down to it’s most minimalistic form for the second verse. Again, this is a wonderful technique to build tension in a song: build it up musically, and then cut it immediately at its height for full dramatic effect and start over again. This song is a wonderful example of that and a technique that will be used to great effect throughout the album.

After the second chorus a beautiful, soaring bridge shows another excellent hallmark of a good songwriter: writing another movement to the song, that is different enough to change the dynamic of the song, but flows enough to be seamlessly implemented. There are many things about Tori’s songs that I find epic. I love “epic” in music and usually it comes in the form of long song that takes you in many directions musically and emotionally. Tori writes “epic” songs regardless of length. They are so layered and dense vocally, lyrically, musically, and from a production standpoint, that a tight, little 3 or 4 minute song is worthy of having epic status. Just listen to the drums in this song, they are completely minimalistic, and yet that reverb makes them huge sounding, bombastic and, yes… epic!

The song ends with a musical and lyrical refrain which is a staple in many of Tori’s songs. Again, because of her creativity, she is able to free-form these refrains and keep them from sounding repetitive and they are certainly miles from boring.

Okay, Part II later this week when hopefully you will enjoy the rest of the album with me. This initial listening exercise will be longer than most because I’m laying down a foundation of musical and production concepts so I’m putting in two parts. Besides, I broke my headphones — I told you this shit was powerful! I always recommend studio quality headphones when you’re getting down to serious listening of music. No earbuds or wimpy headphones, you need the real deal. They are worth the investment and make the listening experience a million times better. You’ll shell out a little for them, but they pay for themselves ten times over both in sonic and durable quality. Mine broke because I’m an idiot, not because they crapped out. I’d had mine for 20 years and they would have kept going easily another 20 if I hadn’t just sat on them.

Here’s a relatively inexpensive route to get into quality headphones and I think they sound great.

You can probably pick them up at Amazon or elsewhere for around $100.

To be continued…





Religion is For “Smart” People

Give me a good old Christian or Muslim fundamentalist any day. I think this is why atheists are often accused of being the mirror of fundamentalists, because we actually want religious people to believe in something rather than constantly abusing language, abusing text, and moving the goal posts. No wait, moving the goal posts doesn’t quite describe what religious people do, they change stadiums and start playing a different game with different equipment.

David Brooks has a column on “faith” in the NYT Op-Ed section today that simply redefines “faith” and “religion” into something that can sit well with his modern sensibilities. It’s what Karen Armstrong does and it’s what all the woo-peddlers out there do. Don’t like the meaning of a word? Don’t like what your holy book has to say? That’s okay, words can mean whatever you want them to mean both individually and as a collective. Translation: “You stupid atheists, you’ll never understand the ineffable and numinous because you’re so inflexible and don’t realize that words can mean anything we want them to mean. The sooner you learn that, then, well… GOD!” I think they are simply being precious, and religion and faith allows them to wall off their sacred notions of sacred.

David Brooks starts the column right away by redefining faith in quite a circular way:

It begins, for many people, with an elusive experience of wonder and mystery. The best modern book on belief is “My Bright Abyss” by my Yale colleague, Christian Wiman. In it, he writes, “When I hear people say they have no religious impulse whatsoever … I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond yourself, some wordless mystery straining through word to reach you? Never?

Who buys this stuff? If you feel overwhelmed or inadequate by life experiences this equates to religion? It is so obnoxious to have someone redefine the term religious to include everyday life experiences, and then tell the non-religious that if they have ever experienced anything whatsoever, then they are by definition religious. How does David Brooks and Christian Wiman put forth such an argument with a straight face? He continues:

Most believers seem to have had these magical moments of wonder and clearest consciousness, which suggested a dimension of existence beyond the everyday. Maybe it happened during childbirth, with music, in nature, in love or pain, or during a moment of overwhelming gratitude and exaltation.

What he says in this paragraph is a key difference between believers and non-believers: once you take out the silly word “magical” from above, he is not describing anything outside normal human experience, and yet he wants to claim for religion (and faith) absolutely everything that doesn’t belong to religion, it belongs to humanity.

It’s all very solipsistic on the part of the believer to think the range of human experience and emotion simply belong to religion — but it’s actually worse than that: David Brooks (and Wiman) are claiming these experiences, can only be the domain of the religious. They put aside human experience into this little “other” category which they dub “religious” and stake claim to it as solely something experienced and appreciated by believers. It doesn’t make such experiences any more special, I think it actually cheapens them. Most believers cannot see outside their own head and realize that nothing described above (again, except magic) cannot be fully experienced and appreciated by a non-believer. I would dare to argue that such experiences are enriched by non-believers, as these experiences are seen as a beautiful part of the human condition in this world; they are experiences that we can share together and not just sprinkled onto us by a magical fairy-dusting.

He goes on about religion in faith in a completely incoherent manner:

These moments provide an intimation of ethical perfection and merciful love. They arouse a longing within many people to integrate that glimpsed eternal goodness into their practical lives. This longing is faith. It’s not one emotion because it encompasses so many emotions. It’s not one idea because it contains contradictory ideas. It’s a state of motivation, a desire to reunite with that glimpsed moral beauty and incorporate it into everyday living.

Leave it to the religious to think they are so special because they are gifted with internal magical powers. Yet they think humans are not special for the reasons we are actually special: humans have ideals, dreams, emotions, senses, consciousness, etc. Notice again how he uses “faith” in a way that is unrecognizable. Faith in this paragraph is a longing. What? He not only redefines “faith” yet again, but also extends the definition and makes it more vague by saying “it’s also not a single emotion, it encompasses many emotions”. So now “faith” has been redefined, the definition has been extended to encompass multiple emotions, and it’s vague and opaque. He’s not done, it’s also a “state of motivation”, a desire associated with moral beauty, and also the act of incorporating all this gobbledygook  into life. Congratulations David Brooks, you have just rendered the word faith utterly meaningless.

Up to this point I just considered this another horrible column on faith. Let them have religion, I say, I think it’s silly, but if they want to do it, let them have their toys. But then David Brooks has to go and do something really stupid as he starts the ridiculous attempt (it’s always ridiculous) to reconcile his weird definitions of faith and religion with reason. Yes reason.

Religion may begin with experiences beyond reason, but faith relies on reason…

In his famous fourth footnote in “Halakhic Man,” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes, “The individual who frees himself from the rational principle and who casts off the yoke of objective thought will in the end turn destructive and lay waste the entire created order. Therefore, it is preferable that religion should ally itself with the forces of clear, logical cognition, as uniquely exemplified in the scientific method, even though at times the two might clash with one another.”

Or as Wiman puts it more elegantly: “Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason, except insofar as it preserves and protects that wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.”

I should have known there couldn’t be a religious article without having it both ways. Reason needs faith and faith needs reason. Neither of these premises is true, reason does not indeed need faith, and faith vanishes with reason. Don’t try and tack your religion on to reason and scientific method. Seriously, scientific method??? I cannot for the life of me comprehend how any religious definition of faith has anything to do with the scientific method. It’s simply another way for people like Brooks to feel better about that nasty little word “faith” and be able to live with himself and accept reason and science also. One needs to go and I’m glad he recognizes that it can’t be reason or science, so he has abandoned faith without knowing it. It has been obliterated by Brooks and any discernible definition of the word is lost in his re-branding — and it most certainly doesn’t coincide with reason. Why not drop it altogether? Religious people are so clingy about words like faith, they are willing to rob them of all meaning before they will stop using them.

But he’s not done. That little 5 letter word still has some stretch left in it, so he will go to the well yet again to slap another definition onto faith. “All this discerning and talking leads to the main business of faith: living attentively every day.” Again, living attentively every day is not magical, nor spiritual, nor religious and it certainly isn’t faith or “the business of faith”. Living attentively does just fine as a human endeavor. More unnecessary mysticism where real life is more than sufficient to speak in these terms.

I love the way he ends the column too. The column insults my sensibilities as a non-believer, who I thought his piece was addressing, but he ends it with a dig to his fellow believers:

Insecure believers sometimes cling to a rigid and simplistic faith. But confident believers are willing to face their dry spells, doubts, and evolution. Faith as practiced by such people is change. It is restless, growing. It’s not right and wrong that changes, but their spiritual state and their daily practice. As the longings grow richer, life does, too. As Wiman notes, “To be truly alive is to feel one’s ultimate existence within one’s daily existence.”

So, according to Brooks, non-religious people are actually religious if they simply have emotions. Also, believers are facile and aren’t doing religion correctly. Way to start the column off by condescending to non-believers and end it by condescending to your fellow faith-heads. David Brooks wins the gold for condescension. Good job!



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