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Tori Amos – Little Earthquakes
I can never resist the temptation...
to name-drop Kate Bush in any article I write. This is not deliberate but I do think there are connections in other artists. I look at the sleeve for Tori Amos’ debut album, Little Earthquakes, and think of a young Bush in one of her poses. It has that same sense of enigma and beauty and, when you listen to Little Earthquakes, there is that same bravery and boldness regarding lyrical content – a similarly ethereal vocal and sense of the unusual. It would be unfair to compare Amos to Bush too heavily but, whilst there is clear influence, Little Earthquakes is different to anything Kate Bush ever put out. Vinyl is the best way to listen to Tori Amos’ debut and, if you can grab a copy then do so because it is a terrific album. She would go on to create some truly wonderful records – including Little Earthquakes’ follow-up, Under the Pink, in 1994 – but things started quite modestly. Amos approached Atlantic Records back in 1990 with a ten-track demo tape. Perhaps it was the slightly eccentric nature of the songs but they were not met with acclaim and appreciation. Crucify and Winter were among these songs and it is hard to think any person would refute their immediacy and promise. In any case, it seemed like American labels were not receptive. Björk would arrive with her debut album in 1993 so it seemed Tori Amos was (briefly) ahead of her time. It is a shame that, for an album that would gain great acclaim, it was a tough start for Amos.
Instead of accepting defeat and resistance, she travelled to London and worked with Ian Stanley in London. Not that we were overrun with slightly unusual sounds in the 1990s but we were more accommodating of artists who were unconventional and slightly off the grid. Maybe words like ‘eccentric’ are unfair to level at Tori Amos because, as you listen to her debut, there is great maturity, compassion and intelligence. The songs, at times, are very challenging but this was another reason her music did not get instant appreciation. At a time when there was a distinct sound in the mainstream – Pavement, R.E.M. and Beastie Boys were among the most-lauded – it was fond British ears that helped get Little Earthquakes into the studio. Amos recorded Me and a Gun and China – two of her early singles – and, before long, the record company accepted what was presented.
It seems mad that such restrictions were imposed and they were so hesitant. Maybe, like Kate Bush in 1978, there was nobody around like her and (the music) was a stark contrast to what was being produced. We listen to the album now and it still sounds completely bold and original. Amos released her fifteen album, Native Invader, in 2017 and she is still going strong. Who knows what would have been if her debut was held back or scrapped altogether. I am pleased Tori Amos has not compromised in her career and continues, even now, to push boundaries and release such beautiful music! Long may this continue and who knows what Amos will give to the world on her next album!
Another reason why I think record labels and bigwigs were unsure of Little Earthquakes is because of the rawness and openness. 1992 was not short of emotional and thought-provoking albums but nothing like this from a new artist. Family issues, literature and catholic guilt are all put under the microscope. As this NME article shows (written when the album turned twenty back in 2012), this notion of feeling imprisoned and restricted was a theme that ran through Little Earthquakes:
“The idea of “chains” is one that’s explored obsessively on the album. In the next track ‘Girl’, Amos casts herself as the heroine of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, balancing the expectations of society with her own (“She’s been everybody else’s girl/Maybe one day she’ll be her own”).
Similarly, in ‘Silent All These Years’, she’s searching through the clamour of everyone else’s voices for her own. The double header of ‘Winter’ and ‘Mother’ find her alternatively running into the arms of her parents and bristling against their ideals of who she should be (“I walked into your dream/And now I’ve forgotten how to dream my own dream/You are the clever one aren’t you”)”.
If Amos detoured from easy Kate Bush comparisons post-Little Earthquakes (although songs such as Cornflake Girl from Under the Pink are very much in that mould), songs such as Me and a Gun explored the same sort of brash themes many other artists were avoiding. Amos, on this track, talked about a rape she suffered and took us back to that time and place, Unflinching and completely naked, it is a song that stands out from the pack. I look at music now and there are few artists taking such gambles and being so brave with their music. This great article from The Quietus – written in 2012 – looked at the background of Little Earthquakes and why, appropriately, it created such waves when it was released:
“A minister’s daughter who played piano from the age of two and was the youngest person ever to be admitted to the Peabody Conservatoire, she began composing low-budget, piano-led songs with lyrics that reflected her own personality. Initially she found herself crushed again; the first master tapes were rejected with the comment that there wasn’t a hit among them.
She and producing partner, her then-boyfriend Eric Rosse, regrouped and went back to his home studio to record more songs. Eventually, Atlantic sent her to their partner label in England where they felt her introspective piano would find more favor. The final phase of the album was recorded in London, where Tori played small clubs and support sets.
Little Earthquakes bears many of what would become Tori’s musical and lyrical signatures. Her compositions are classically-influenced; led by voice rather than genre. Her attention to detail is fastidious, and the thought processes leading to her songs are intricate, if not always clear. Her work has often been inspired by marginalized women from history or fiction (the video for early single ‘Crucify’ depicts her dressed as Anne Boleyn). She uses these archetypes to explore broad themes and concepts rather than tell individual stories, making the lyrics metaphorical and open to interpretation. Her early rejection of great songs that didn’t fit with the overall ‘flow’ of the album led to a catalogue of impressive - often collectable - B-sides which tend to be played live, most notably the defiant ‘Take To The Sky’, which sums up the album’s back-from-the-brink mood”.
From the very first notes of Crucify through to the great finale of the title track, Little Earthquakes is this endlessly rich and rewarding album. To listen to on vinyl is a wonder but, however you discover it, see where Tori Amos started and discover this wonderful thing. Some argue albums like Under the Pink are more complete and arresting but, even without a blitz such as Cornflake Girl, one cannot deny the authority, completeness and confidence of the album. As debuts go, there are few as striking, personal and special. I have stated how there are heavy themes addressed but Amos never shouts and screams her pain. Her beautiful voice gives Little Earthquakes a sense of balance and accessibility that means songs invite you in.
Little Earthquakes is one of my favourite albums from the 1990s and I like the fact that Amos’ debut clearly influenced a lot of other artists. Listen to the finest female artists of the moment and you can trace a line back to Amos. Other artists, before and after Amos, talked about sex and upbringing in a very real and open way but none quite like her! Every song paints vivid images and you immerse yourself in these incredible songs. The compositions are also extremely accomplished. Amos wrote all the tracks and it is startling to think that someone straight out of the blocks could create such a masterful and singular record. The reviews for Little Earthquakes were positive and, since its release, a lot of retrospective acclaim has come its way. AllMusic, in this review, had this to say:
“The apex of that intimacy is the harrowing "Me and a Gun," where Amos strips away all the music, save for her own voice, and confronts the listener with the story of her own real-life rape; the free-associative lyrics come off as a heart-wrenching attempt to block out the ordeal. Little Earthquakes isn't always so stomach-churning, but it never seems less than deeply cathartic; it's the sound of a young woman (like the protagonist of "Silent All These Years") finally learning to use her own voice -- sort of the musical equivalent of Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia...
IN THIS PHOTO: Tori Amos in 1992/PHOTO CREDIT: Jay Blakesberg
That's why Amos draws strength from her relentless vulnerability, and that's why the constantly shifting emotions of the material never seem illogical -- Amos simply delights in the frankness of her own responses, whatever they might be. Though her subsequent albums were often very strong, Amos would never bare her soul quite so directly (or comprehensibly) as she did here, nor with such consistently focused results. Little Earthquakes is the most accessible work in Amos' catalog, and it's also the most influential and rewarding”.
Pitchfork had their own take:
“Drawn almost exclusively from the initial reject pile, Little Earthquakes finally appeared in early 1992, right when Nirvana’s Nevermind topped the charts. Amos’ solo debut, though it was rarely talked about this way, was similarly radical—an alternately flirty and harrowing work that juxtaposed barbed truths against symphonic flights of fancy. It was lyrically nuanced and harmonically sophisticated exactly when grunge moved rock in a raw and brutish direction, which made her achievement even more striking. Amos was early Queen, early Elton John, and early Kate Bush with Rachmaninoff chops. Decades after prog-rock’s peak, her technical perfection was particularly shocking in the virtuoso-renouncing '90s: Not even Elton could tear into a song both vocally and instrumentally while staring down attendees with a Cheshire Cat grin”.
It is hard to pick highlights but, for me, Winter stands out. Its delicate piano and spellbinding vocal performance takes you somewhere magical. It is a gorgeous song that stops you in your tracks and sort of defines why Little Earthquakes is such a triumph. There is this feeling that (the album) is therapy for Amos and a chance to be reborn. It is as much about being open with the listener as it is challenging the ghosts of her past. All of this emotion and paradox comes to the fore as Amos looks to the future but also addresses the hurt of the past. The mix of the stark and beautiful makes Little Earthquakes a challenging listen at times but, if you want an album that showcases a singer-songwriter completely formed and intent from the start then pick up a copy of…