To Venus And Back
Atlantic Records, 1999
REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/04/1999
Ok, I know Tori Amos and Trent Reznor have had some friendly exchanges, but the two releasing a double album in the same day seems just a bit too contrived. I know it's not their fault and it's probably just an odd coincidence, but there's many-a-broke-ass college students out there this week, including myself. First my car battery dies, now $40 smackers for 2 friggin' CDs! Anyway, I digress.
Like Nine Inch Nails, Amos can be guaranteed a gold album probably for the rest of her life. Count me among the geeks who have scurried about the 'net and numerous record stores in search of such rarities as her Forgotten Earthquakes b-sides release. And this album could have been comprised of outtakes from her performance on the "Regis & Kathie Lee" show and I would have shelled out the cash.
Before To Venus And Back was released, Amos said the album was meant to be a series of b-sides taken mainly from her recording of "from the choirgirl hotel" as well as a live CD. But Amos's inspiration, "the fairies," blessed her with some songwriting chops and before she knew it, an album was formed. Though she has said this is not the official follow-up to from the choirgirl hotel, she did admit that this collection is more than an assortment of b-sides.
Unfortunately, when Amos said this, I began to give the first side of her album a little more weight. And sadly, it is a disappointment. By fully implimenting her backup band and incorporating way too much electronica this time out, the first side of To Venus And Back, lacks a certain warmness that has decorated all of Amos's albums.
Her quirky lyrics are certainly not missing on this outing. On one of her more commercial songs, "Bliss," the song begins with "Father, I killed my monkey." And on "Glory Of The '80s," Amos's pattern of songwriting for one of the first times in her career, becomes formulaic: add some kitchy pop culture reference (Raquel Welch, "Bette Davis Eyes"), sprinkle in some religous imagery and then write whatever is in your mind right now ("I had 'The Story Of O' in my bucket seat") and put on random in the word processor and presto.
Amos has been weird before. But even on her weirdest album, Boys For Pele, she at least had some direction in which she wanted the album to go. A flow if you will. Given time, listeners may warm up to disc one. "Lust" and "Spring Haze" are both beautiful ditties that would fit in perfectly with most of her previous albums. But too often, the new tracks of To Venus And Back are over produced and uninspired.
The flaws on the first disc become glaringly evident once you get to the second disc. The live side of To Venus And Back has to be one of the most perfectly produced live albums this decade. "Precious Things" and "Waitress" are turned into power jam sessions that evoke images of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin in terms of their beautiful excess.
Yes, parts of the first disc were excessive, but they didn't ROCK. Even people who hated Boys For Pele may dig the live version of "Mr. Zebra." Some of the highlights on this disc include the full-out groove of "Cornflake Girl" and the sound check version of "Sugar," a song that is a staple of her many b-side releases.
Amos has and will always be best when it's just her voice and her piano. But the live songs on To Venus And Back show an artist who is not afraid to take risks. If from the choirgirl hotel was her version of Achtung Baby, then the in-studio recording of To Venus And Back best represent her attempt at making Zooropa: an essentially flawed album sprinkled with elements of greatness.
For many fans, getting used to disc one is going to be a rough experience. Each of these songs will take time to win the favor of most Amos fans. And with a near-perfect live album in the next sleeve, it's even more of a temptation to write off disc one as a series of self-indulgent b-sides. Every great artist who has lasted has had at least one questionable album in their collection. And for Amos, at least this album shows that she's capable of such an offense. Grade for the in-studio album: C. Grade for the live recording: A-. Let the law of averages work things out.