I must have stood here, staring at my CD collection for half an hour or so. I had known I’d wanted to do an ongoing series of articles for Backseat Mafia that would build up to be an A to Z of unfairly overlooked and forgotten albums through the decades, but I just didn’t have a starting point. I needed an A. Nothing among my AC/DC or Aerosmith albums were particularly obscure. Each of Arcade Fire’s albums have had a fair amount of articles written about them over the years. No, I was drawing a blank.
Then I saw it. An album by one of the finest singer songwriters of the 90s. For which she didn’t write any songs due to the fact it was a covers album, a point driven home by the fact that it had multiple covers.
Tori Amos is not an obscure artist by any means, but that’s not what I want this series of articles to be about. This is about encouraging whoever may be reading them to dig out and reacquaint themselves with an album that they may have in their collection that has been unfairly forgotten about and remained unplayed for maybe years. For me Strange Little Girls is one of those albums.
I must have first become aware of Tori Amos in about 1994, because I certainly remember hearing “Cornflake Girl” played on the radio and enjoying it. However, it wasn’t until the late 90s that I realised that there was a hell of a lot more to Tori Amos than her easy on the eye features and her Kate Bush-isms. Sadly, immediately after me gaining an appreciation for her as a legitimate musical artist of some standing, she started to lose me a little. I found her double album, To Venus and Back, confusing and she followed it up with this willful collection of covers.
Covers albums can be hit or miss affairs, especially if the recording artist in question is one of the most celebrated lyricists of the last decade. As it is Strange Little Girls certainly splits Tori Amos fans pretty much in two. There are those that howl in frustration that an artist of her calibre lowered herself to record material that they felt was beneath her. However there are also those Tori Amos fans for whom this album makes absolute sense, as throughout her early solo career, Tori had great fun covering the likes of Led Zeppelin, Nirvana (her cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit is startling) and the Rolling Stones. Strange Little Girls was in many ways just a natural development of this.
Personally I am relatively generous spirited towards Strange Little Girls, but as I’m particularly partial to a well executed and interesting cover version, that’s perhaps to be expected. With this album Tori Amos decided to take a varied of selection of songs written by men from a diverse set of acts and sing them from a woman’s perspective. A sketchy concept perhaps, but one that did have some validity. Indeed, where else could you hear a vocalist of her talent perform songs by such celebrated writers as Neil Young, Eminem, Tom Waits and, err, Slayer? Vocally Tori was on fine form, having dialed-out a lot of the vocal histrionics of her earlier work, but still remaining unmistakably Tori Amos.
True, not all of it works and in parts it can fall way short of expectations (“Happiness is a Warm Gun” is certainly not for everyone), but where it does work, such as the stripped-back voice and piano approach to numbers like Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” and Tom Wait’s “Time”, it manages to transcend the folly of the project, indeed if all the material here had been recorded using this approach I would point to it as one of Tori’s great successes. Sadly many of the tracks are performed with a full band, which can either be beneficial (the title track) or a mistake (“New Age”). You can’t deny an artist of the caliber of Tori Amos the odd artistic folly though, as she certainly has the talent to make even the worst idea at least half-successful. Anyone that can take a song like “Heart of Gold” and manage to twist and contort it into something which sounds nothing at all like the Neil Young original is a creative force to be reckoned with. Special mention should also go to her cover of “Raining Blood”, if only for the smirks that you barely manage to hold back when you imagine the look of collective bemusement on the faces of Slayer fans hearing it for the first time. Now that’s entertainment!