Tori Amos’s Tales of a Librarian

cover art for tales of a librarianDaniel James Wood wrote this review.

Tales Of A Librarian is the CliffsNotes version of Tori Amos’s decade-long career — a career that, in addition to being broadly represented on the album, is also depicted bravely and unflinchingly, warts and all. Two new tracks, “Snow Cherries from France” and “Angels,” as well as two B-sides from previous single-track releases, “Mary” and “Sweet Dreams,” join sixteen tunes taken from Amos’ first five albums, each of which has been reworked and remixed using the original raw recordings. Some have been significantly changed; others, not so much. Some are representative of Amos at her very best; others must be on here for gimmick value or for the benefit of completists, or just to demonstrate how far Amos can miss the mark. The result is a mixed bag of tunes that is, I suspect, intentionally erratic and uneven — anything less, and it wouldn’t be a Tori Amos record at all.

Amos has always been a fan of concept albums. Her first release, Little Earthquakes, was like a musical glimpse inside her personal diary, and her second release, Under The Pink, continued that theme. Her third, Boys for Pele, told of a congregation of gods from history’s various civilizations who gather together to discuss female divinity and empowerment. Her fourth album, From the Choirgirl Hotel, came in the wake of the premature death of an unborn child, while her sixth, Strange Little Girls, was a collection of cover versions of songs made famous by men in which Amos told a woman’s side of the story. Her most recent effort, Scarlet’s Walk, was her account of a musical road trip across post-9/11 America as she set out to uncover the nation’s soul and to unearth her own Native American heritage. Each of these albums has a narrative drive behind it; it tracks the progression of a story, and indeed the placement of each track on the overall record is carefully considered to achieve that effect. But Tales Of A Librarian, being a simple compilation album, lacks the momentum held by its predecessors. While this could be seen as a bad thing — a product of laziness, perhaps — it certainly makes Tales very accessible, and it boasts enough solid material to be of interest to long-time fans who won’t want to miss the re-recorded tunes, and to newcomers who might want to see what all the fuss is about.

For those long-time fans, the intricacies of the remixes and alterations are more or less undetectable, with the exception of four tracks that are noticeably different from their counterparts on earlier albums. Three of those four remain mostly intact, albeit in a different form from which they appear on their respective records. The dreamlike “Tear in Your Hand” and the deliriously energetic “Cornflake Girl” — two of Amos’ most beloved songs, from Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink respectively — have had additional vocal work added to their momentous rhythmic peaks, while “Way Down” — the kind of hymn you’d expect to hear in a small-town church somewhere along the Bible Belt, lifted from the immaculate Boys for Pele — has been extended with greater emphasis on the vocals of the choir that was mostly relegated to background duty on the original album.

The fourth significantly altered track is “Professional Widow,” also from Boys for Pele. The version on this album is, in fact, the same version that was released on the billboard charts as a very successful single, though it is vastly different from the album version, similar in almost no respect save for the title and a couple of lyrics. It’s a techno/dance remix and it seems grossly out of place even on this album of assorted songs; it feels like it’s been wedged in there uncomfortably, right between the mournful choral strains of “Way Down” and the nursery rhyme absurdity of “Mr Zebra.” The only other song that comes close to matching it on a stylistic level is “Bliss,” which is in turn the only track to be taken from Amos’ least successful album To Venus and Back, her fifth release. As with “Professional Widow,” “Bliss” is wedged in there like a black rose amongst a thicket of red ones, right between “Me and a Gun,” Amos’ a capella retelling of the night she was raped, and “Playboy Mommy,” the most heart-wrenching account of several songs concerning the loss of her unborn child. These two out-of-place tracks are, however, the only missteps on the entire album, and, aside from their erroneous placement, Tales is infused with a general feeling of nostalgia brought about by the passing of an exciting decade now gone, and that sense of melancholy is matched only by Amos’ obvious affection for a decade well-spent.

As a bonus, Tales Of A Librarian comes packaged with a DVD featuring live video footage of Amos performing two extra previously-recorded tracks, “Pretty Good Year” and “Northern Lad,” and another brand-new one, “Honey,” in addition to featuring two sets of still photos arranged in a slide-show format, each of which is accompanied by “Putting the Damage On” and “Mr Zebra.” The DVD is a real boon for those of us who have never had the opportunity to watch Amos perform live — we can now see first-hand just how effortlessly she reaches the most soaring of notes, her haunting vocal talents matched only by her sophistication as a pianist.

Interesting, too, is the album’s cover and jacket design, which organizes and categorizes each song according to its placement in the Dewey Decimal Classification system used to categorize books in public libraries. Of course, given their subject matter, most of the songs fall under the broad spectrums of philosophy or religion, and occasionally folklore, though some of them surprisingly fall under such categories as linguistics and etiquette. This classification system provides an intriguing insight into the way Amos interprets her own songs, and the result is sometimes obvious — “Playboy Mommy” falls under “Medicine and Health: Miscarriage” — and sometimes surprising — “Bliss” falls under “Epistemology: Origin and Destiny of Individual Souls” — and sometimes mystifying — “Mary” falls under “Social Problems and Social Services: Abuse of the Earth” cross-referenced with “The Bible: Mary Magdalene.” These classifications are nothing to be taken too seriously, but after ten years of frequently baffling and delirious lyrics, it’s nice to finally receive a couple of hints as to Amos’ own thoughts on the impressive body of work she has accumulated.

Tales Of A Librarian is, overall, a competent and accurate representation of that body of work — a summary, like the tip of an iceberg hinting at the greatness that lies beyond. Noticeably absent are fan-favorite tracks as distantly past as “Little Earthquakes” and “Hey Jupiter,” and some as recent as ” ’97 Bonnie & Clyde” and “a sorta fairytale,” but those omissions are forgivable because at the end of the album we are left with the sense that Tales isn’t simply a slap-dash assortment of random tunes, but that it is, rather, a diverse range of songs that Amos herself specifically selected to represent her career, whether for reasons of personal preference, or completeness, or, as it seems, for reasons of emotional autobiography. Indeed, the album feels like the inevitable conclusion to a turbulent journey, put out on display so we may reminisce on what has come before, and so we may prepare for what will come later. It’s like that part in the middle of a great book where you close the covers, take a breath and think back on what has just taken place, and try to predict what will happen next, knowing full well that you’ll never get it right and you’re in for a pleasant surprise. It is an invaluable assortment of tunes; not necessarily always the best ones, but certainly the ones that leave the deepest, most powerful and most lasting impressions — and those songs, in the grand scheme of a long and varied career, are ultimately those that hold the most importance.

(Atlantic, 2003)

Diverse Voices

Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers and other staffers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don't always. It also includes material by writers that first appeared in the Sleeping Hedgehog, our in-house newsletter for staff and readers here. Some material is drawn from Folk Tales, Mostly Folk and Roots & Branches, three other publications we've done.

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