Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
Wham, Steely Dan, Bette Midler, Bill Withers, Rihanna, Led Zeppelin, Madonna, Eagles, the Stones – Tori Amos has covered ’em all, and anyone and everyone left in between. (OK, maybe except maybe boybands – it wouldn’t surprise me if she tackled, say, “Back For Good” at least somewhere live, but I couldn’t find it in the pages and pages and pages of YouTube Tori Covers links.) Not necessarily successfully every time, it’s true, but always challengingly and usually well worth the ride.
Despite this evident love for the songs of others, Amos has officially issued only the one covers project, such is her own prolific muse, with well over a dozen discs of her own. (There’s also Midwinter Graces, a festive album with several traditional songs, and Night of Hunters, reimagining several classical pieces of inspiration to her over her years, but they don’t really count as cover albums.) Strange Little Girls, which came out in 2001, had a specific intent. Rather than a outpouring of personal favorites, this was a procession of songs delineating a masculine view of the world. By men and about men. With Amos’s acknowledged feminist opinions and activism, this was a deliberate stance, with the aim of subverting them and offering a female perspective thereto.
The choice of songs and artists covers on Strange Little Girls is wide, but arguably reflects Amos’s point of residence at the time – Cornwall, in the United Kingdom, she having married UK sound engineer Mark Hawley in 1988. So there is a gamut of British artists covered, often from the punk and new wave of the couple of decades prior to the albums release: the Stranglers, the Boomtown Rats, and Joe Jackson, as well as one from Basildon synth-poppers Depeche Mode. From the wider sphere of international artists and the more frequently covered, we get the Beatles, Tom Waits, and Neil Young. And Eminem. The arrangements can vary wildly, from near-orthodox copycat mode to sonic outrage, the dominant forces within being Amos’s trademark “crean,” that middle ground of a croak and croon so beloved of current female singers, a middle ground Amos was a pioneer in exploring. Piano being her instrument of choice (a child prodigy at the Peabody Institute at age 5), here it is largely the electric instrument, switched to muffled mute, the echo-laden shimmer so redolent of Muscle Shoals, and, in particular, Spooner Oldham.
Which is how opener “New Age” starts, an initially hard-to-place Velvet Underground song about fan-boy adulation. The Loaded track, written by Lou Reed and helmed by Doug Yule, is all through the eyes of the fan, and Amos chooses not to see through those eyes. This is the 1969 Live with Lou Reed lyric, very much told from the stance of the “fat blonde actress,” and it reeks of fading glamour, with Adrian Belew’s trademark searing guitar shards slicing through the later verses. A chilling opener, which swiftly leads into the much-discussed “’97 Bonnie and Clyde,” one of Eminem’s horror stories, the dead-wife-in-trunk one, wholly outspooking the rapper’s own, reflecting the lyric rather through the child/daughter also present in the car whilst Daddy drives the three of them away. Oo-ee-oo. And it doesn’t shirk on the (originally sampled) appearance of “Just the Two of Us” either, making an otherwise rather slim song altogether more shady.
And so to the title track, in singular. I have to say that “Strange Little Girl” is a song I have always liked, the first sight of melodicism in the Stranglers compendium. Beyond that, Amos adds little, as with Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence,” perhaps only accentuating the derisory lyrics. Thankfully, a new age electronica sheen added to 10cc’s vintage smoochie “I’m Not In Love” adds kudos to a possibly overheard song. Amos strips it back, drum machine to the fore, and her vocal inhabits, rather than the love-locked denier of the original, a vapid atmosphere of matter of factedness. The fact being, Tori Amos is beginning to frighten me.
It takes a mo’ to realize where the next song is coming from, actually not until the chorus, despite it being another great song, Lloyd Cole’s “Rattlesnakes.” Yes, it’s done well, but it needs more sting in the tale, as it is a bit anodyne. This feel continues with “Time,” which, had it been on last year’s Women Sing Waits, might have been a standout; here, it’s crying out for something more radical.
More radical, you say? “Heart of Gold” is certainly that, a coruscating shard storm of guitar and vocal, all melody extruded in favor of a PCP nightmare. One more to admire more than love. Or listen again to. Thus, “I Don’t Like Mondays” can then come as a gentle brain rinse, and I found I liked this version, in contrast to other commentators at the time, who felt it removed the angst. I sort of think that’s the point. Just the wurlitzer and Tori combine to, once more, chill the soul.
Blasphemy alert: The Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun” isn’t that great a song, beyond, possibly, the title. Amos here near ignores it in favor of a collage of found sound, clips of newsreel about the right or otherwise to hold guns, the sung lyrics a near afterthought, perhaps best left that way.
The only song entirely unknown, before or since, is Slayer’s “Raining Blood.” On checking, her doomful dirge is definitely an improvement, the original best summed up by a comment under the YT clip I found: “when you mix coffee with Red Bull, and add a little meth.” That made me smile more than either version, which leaves me needing something sweeter to end the record. This comes, again, and annoyingly again, as another great song, Joe Jackson’s “Real Men,” done bland. OK, not bland, but just calling out for a bit more, and I’m trying not to say it, balls, knowing that somehow unseats the whole ethos of the exercise, and is a sourer note than I mean to leave you with.
Does Tori achieve her aim, if it be so, of subversion, twisting these songs to and with a female perspective? It may help to understand that the packaging to Strange Little Girls originally came with photos and liner notes depicting and expounding a set of different characters. Each of the 12 personae – well, 13, as the personae for “Heart of Gold” is/are twins (yeah, me neither) – represent the respective narrators of the 12 songs, while the liner notes were written by Amos’ friend, author Neil Gaiman, later to be reprised and expanded in his short story collection Fragile Things. Then again, as with myself, it may not help, as the songs are all Tori.
Strange Little Girls is an ambitious album and, where it succeeds, it is superlative. Where it fails it is awful, yet still somehow commendable. The problem is of the in-between being merely competent. For Tori Amos, that isn’t enough.
Strange Little Girls Tracklisting:
1) New Age (The Velvet Underground cover)
2) ’97 Bonnie & Clyde (Eminem cover)
3) Strange Little Girl (The Stranglers cover)
4) Enjoy The Silence (Depeche Mode cover)
5) I’m Not In Love (10cc cover)
6) Rattlesnakes (Lloyd Cole & The Commotions cover)
7) Time (Tom Waits cover)
8) Heart Of Gold (Neil Young cover)
9) I Don’t Like Mondays (The Boomtown Rats cover)
10) Happiness is a Warm Gun (The Beatles cover)
11) Raining Blood (Slayer cover)
12) Real Men (Joe Jackson cover)