The Great Albums


Emotionally charged 'Earthquakes' ever resonant

September 21, 2003



On her debut solo album, Tori Amos introduced herself to the world as a study in contradictions.

Here was a singer-songwriter with the attitude of an alternative rocker; a classically trained pianist who stressed emotion over technique, a sometimes spacey, new-age chanteuse with a flair for cynical satire, and a raging punk who could also play the flighty faerie princess.

As the disc's "Tori-in-a-box" cover art evocatively illustrated, Amos would never be an artist who could be pigeonholed, stereotyped or walled in in any way. She proudly flaunted the many conflicting sides of her artistic persona, leaving listeners to sort out what it all means.

Great Albums: Tori Amos 'Little Earthquakes' (1992)

1. "Crucify"

2. "Girl"

3. "Silent All These Years"

4. "Precious Things"

5. "Winter"

6. "Happy Phantom"

7. "China"

8. "Leather"

9. "Mother"

10. "Tear in Your Hand"

11. "Me and a Gun"

12. "Little Earthquakes"

"The generalization thing just isn't working anymore," Amos told me not long after the album's release. "It's about individuals. I think there are a lot of women speaking about it. There is a next wave, but it's exciting, because it's not about 'me against you.' It's about what I'm feeling. It's about women exploring themselves."

Amos grew up in Baltimore, the outspoken daughter of a Scottish Methodist preacher and a mother who was part Cherokee. She was a child prodigy on the piano, entered the Peabody Institute at age 5 and was expelled at 11. In the late '80s, she fronted a pop-metal band called Y Kant Tori Read. The group released one album that flopped, prompting Amos to move to England in 1990. There, she reinvented herself as a solo artist and began recording her debut, drawing inspiration from a number of heroines ranging from Kate Bush to Patti Smith.

Working on several tracks with producer and then-boyfriend Eric Rosse, Amos kept the sound spare but tuneful, mostly focusing on her fluid piano playing and soaring vocals. Like Leonard Cohen before her, she proved that these two simple sonic elements can pack as powerful a wallop as Nirvana's crushing guitar, bass and drums. (Shortly after the album's release, she paid homage to the Seattle trio with her own striking cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which none other than Kurt Cobain hailed for its creative reimagining of his song.)

But what really elevated "Little Earthquakes" from similarly minimalist singer-songwriter, adult-alternative fare was its songs' emotional content.

Amos tackles hot-button topics such as gender stereotyping, religious conservatism, male hegemony and rape in a frank, unflinching, and alternately poignant and heartbreakingly funny manner. "Crucify" is a brutal look in the mirror of self-examination ("Every finger in the room is pointing at me/I wanna spit in their faces.../Why do we crucify ourselves/Every day I crucify myself"). "Girl" chronicles the never-ending search for a strong feminine identity ("She's been everybody else's girl/Maybe someday she'll be her own"), while "Silent All These Years" is a furious protest against an unnamed man (her father? a lover?) who has kept her down for far too long ("Well, I love the way we communicate/Your eyes focus on my funny lip shape/Let's hear what you think of me now but baby don't look up/The sky is falling").

All three of these uncompromising songs were hits, establishing Amos' career and paving the way for a wave of equally assertive female singer-songwriters who followed. But the album's most striking track, and the one most indicative of the artist's honest-at-all-costs approach, is "Me and a Gun," a harrowing a cappella account of her experience with rape ("Me and a gun/And a man/On my back/But I haven't seen Barbados/So I must get out of this").

Like a great, soulful blues artist, Amos finds catharsis from personal pain in her music. But like the best rock 'n' rollers (Cobain among them), she entertains, inspires and energizes while she's doing it. And the impact of her songs is indeed like the "little earthquakes" referenced in the title.