American Doll Posse (Epic)
by Tim Den
After the less-than-impressive showing on The Beekeeper, many Tori Amos fans – myself included – were unsure of what to expect next from the once goddess of songwriting. Theories of AOR lite ballads crawled through message boards like an ugly virus, as fear of “we lost her!” took hold in the hearts of many. So it was with apprehension that many of us approached American Doll Posse, yet another HUGE collection of songs that, if history is of any indication, seemed to offer as many flops as hits.
And things didn’t get off to a good start: Ppener “Yo George,” though pretty, throws out a shallow, elementary “allergy” metaphor in reference to Tori’s discontent with Dubya. Yikes, not a good sign. The 80+ minutes that followed also, during the first few listens, didn’t seem to offer anything groundbreaking or immediate, simply a suffocatingly large amount of material to sift through. And often zone out of. In fact, if I’d written this review after only two weeks with the record, it would’ve read something along the lines of: “Another overly complicated concept album with overcrowded musical ideas that trips over itself more than expresses a coherent thought.” It’s a good thing, then, that I kept listening.
After about a month, American Doll Posse – surprisingly and unbelievably – started to make sense. And I don’t mean just the five narrative points of views – those I’m still trying to wrap my head around – but the actual content of the music. Eventually, as I dug deeper, I found that the 23 songs here each proved their worth. Not only that, but that they showed Tori at her most flexible and multi-faceted. Claims of this album being her “rockingest” could be justified on tracks such as “Big Wheel,” “Teenage Hustling,” “You Can Bring Your Dog,” and “Body and Soul,” though unlike her past attempts at “rocking” and “being bluesy,” none of the four come off as contrived or cheesy. This, above all else, was the bigger shocker to me. For Tori to overcome the single most annoying thing I felt about her music was an absolute miracle. Seriously, these songs shake and swagger with the best of ’em! There’s even a classic rock, Queen-ish descending riff in the bridge of “Teenage Hustling,” so not only does it kick ass, it makes the right references. Holy celebration!
But as you pass the first, punchy fourth of the record, Tori reveals that she can do more than pound out the beats. “Digital Ghost” drifts with Lennon-esque/Radiohead-ish melodies, “Mr. Bad Man” and “Programmable Soda” recall Magical Mystery Tour‘s playful pop, “Girl Disappearing” offers The Divine Comedy-worthy orchestration, and “Bouncing Off Clouds” is as direct of a delicious, infectious hit single as she has ever written. What’s more, American Doll Posse really comes alive once you get past the halfway point. “Father’s Son” and “Roosterspur Bridge” simmer in melancholy, “Code Red” looms large with its sinister groove, “Beauty of Speed” uses percussive accents and an Under the Pink style arpeggio to create a lilting song, and closer “Dragon” – much like Scarlet‘s Walk closer “Gold Dust” – saves the best for last with its haunting, viscerally emotional minimalism and sadness. Even the incongruent “Almost Rosey,” seemingly made up of random parts (complete with key changes), flows smoothly after repeated listens. American Doll Posse, although it took some work, yielded far more rewards than its predecessor.
But the question is, will audiences patiently strive toward the pay off? The sheer length of the album could be a big turn off to people who just don’t have the time or perseverance to harvest it. For those who do, however, I promise that the choruses are catchier, the repertoire more varied, the sonic palette more colorful (indeed, different production values and approaches are used appropriately on many of the songs), and the emotional impact deeper than what you’d expect.