Recording of April 1994: Under the Pink

TORI AMOS: Under the Pink
Atlantic 82567-2 (CD). John Beverly Jones, Paul McKenna, Eric Rosse, engs.; Eric Rosse, Tori Amos, prods. AAD? TT: 56:52

Tori Amos walks a thin line. On one side lie power and passion; on the other, pretension and preciousness. Like a gymnast on the balance beam, it's less surprising that she falls than that she can stay upright at all while performing such intricate and expressive exercises as she does on Under the Pink.

On Amos's debut, Little Earthquakes, she made it seem like a piece of cake. It would be understandable if, on a sophomore effort, she strove to expand her fan base by playing it safer, increasing accessibility, throwing in some hooks and hummable melodies for the hoi polloi. Instead, and to her credit, she pushes her limits even further, shaving down the balance beam to a mere sliver.

Gone is Little Earthquakes' brilliant yet distancing cleverness. Lines like, "Got enough guilt to start my own religion" (a personal favorite) are replaced by "God, sometimes you just don't come through" ("God")—not as wry, but more direct. Not that Under the Pink could ever be accused of verbal directness—its lyrics present more of a dreamscape than a landscape. Words repeat, sentences begin and end in the middle, circling in frustration.

While some of Amos's frustration is metaphysical, most is centered around relationships—with men, but more often with women. In "Bells for Her" she sees a friend slipping into an unhealthy situation with a man, one that will destroy the women's friendship. She is frustrated because she "can't stop what's coming." And the "Cornflake Girl" disappoints Amos because she has "gone to the other side."

Though Amos has taken no pains to make Pink an easy listen, it is in some ways more accessible than Earthquakes. The grooves, when there are any ("God," "Past the Mission," "The Waitress"), are funkier thanks to George Porter, Jr. of the legendary Meters, and the supportive, creative drumming of Carlo Nuccio. Also, the sparer, more spacious sound reduces the bombast and increases the intimacy of this aural confessional.

Those who have seen Amos in any of her solo-piano concerts can attest to the fluid power she can summon on such evenings, if not wonder why she bothers with a band at all. She has retained all the accuracy and rhythmic precision of her classical training, and has learned the power of the note not played. Under the Pink surpasses the power of Little Earthquakes because its rhythms and dynamics flow all the more directly, even organically, from Amos's Bösendorfer; unlike its predecessor, Under the Pink is not a band album.

Sonically, Pink is a superb example of the modern rock-producer's art: very clean, very good, very "wet," entirely artificial—and just as entirely in the service of the music. No, it's not natural; but when it sounds this good, the point is academic.

But the best part of Under the Pink is its open-endedness. By the second record, most new artists have pretty much shown us everything they've got. Not so Tori Amos—she seems to be only just beginning to reveal herself, both personally and musically. She has the guts to go where she will, and the talent to make it work.—Michael Ross