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Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2001

HIGH NOTES

Tori Amos: 'Strange Little Girls'


Tori Amos, whose most famous song, "Me and a Gun," is an a cappella description of her own real-life rape at gunpoint, wanted to do an album of rock songs originally written and performed by men, so she asked male acquaintances for the names of songs that made an impression on them. Cover albums are usually put together to pay tribute to influences, but the record that Amos came up with, "Strange Little Girls," is poles apart from tribute. It sounds like a challenge.

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Sometimes, Amos' take on a particular number (and artist) is clear. Her version of Eminem's " '97 Bonnie & Clyde" is recited in a sleepy, whispered drawl: the voice of the dead (or dying) woman in the car trunk who is listening to her murderer-husband explaining the situation to their toddler. The Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays," which is about an adolescent girl opening fire at her high school, is here sung as if the girl were on medication.

Amos is both appreciated and derided for her operatic tendencies, and the two above-mentioned cuts are striking for their dramatic depth alone. One can better appreciate her musical gifts on Lou Reed's "New Age," from which she extracts the song's romanticism and fluffs it up like a pillow. On the other hand, the lush, dreamy background of the 10cc hit "I'm Not in Love" is replaced by horror-movie sound effects: Melancholy becomes despair.

It's hard to believe that Amos would like the proudly misogynistic Stranglers, but she turns their "Strange Little Girl" into a masterpiece of full-bodied classic rock. She plays Tom Waits' "Time" relatively straight -- mostly just her and her beloved Bosendorfer grand piano -- even adding a gruff vocal.

As a theatrical exploration of sex and aggression, the collection is both sublime and easy to grasp, but as music it goes even further. By means of thoughtful instrumentation and arrangement, Amos complicates songs whose original appeal lay in their direct simplicity. In doing so, she adds a richness that some may say is unnecessary, but nevertheless makes the songs new and, in many cases, better. Slayer's death-metal diatribe "Raining Blood" is slowed down to a haunting, gothic drone that is not only more coherent than the original, but scarier. Beautiful, too.

This is Amos' most affecting album since her 1992 debut, "Little Earthquakes," and one of the more infamous records to be released this year. Apparently, some of the composers are not crazy about her take on their songs. For a short time, there was a rumor that Eminem was threatening to cover "Me and a Gun" in reprisal. That would have been interesting -- and probably a mistake. One of the points that Amos is making by covering men's songs is that it doesn't work the other way around.



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