When I showed part one of this series to The MND, his main comment was “It needs more Tori.” That’s when I explained that it was a two-parter and Tori Amos was topping the next installment. Tori Amos was another woman who started early, she won a full scholarship to the Peabody Institute when she was five. Tori was the youngest person ever admitted and promptly went about doing things her own way. They expelled her when she was eleven, mostly for preferring to play rock instead of the classics and playing by ear instead of reading the music. In the eighties she had a band called Y Kant Tori Read referencing this habit. The band wasn’t very successful and she moved on to a solo career. (I originally had a snarky comment about Y Kant Tori Read at the end of that sentence but after going back and reviewing the album, it’s really not that bad especially for the stuff being cranked out in the eighties. If the only song you remember off it is The Big Picture, there are better. It has a bit of a Kate Bush influence to it. So no snark.) As one of the few woman singer/songwriters to use the piano as their instrument of choice, Tori Amos has taken a top slot as an asskicker.
Her first album Little Earthquakes came out in 1991, but it was initially rejected by the company, something Tori felt had more to do with presentation than quality. So after some reworking with the help of Doug Morris, she took the album back and it was accepted. Little Earthquakes is one of those albums that knocks you down, goes through your pockets, and picks you back up again. Me and A Gun is so personal and intimate, totally A Capella drawing you in, putting the story front and center. You are part of it whether you want to be or not. Then there is the title song taking you for dances in graveyards, up and down the scales. This album is not afraid to take chances. Listening to it on vinyl you notice the fullness of cords and how her voice is able to hit those places that it doesn’t in digital. If you haven’t heard the opening to China in analog you are really missing something. It is haunting.
Under The Pink was her second album and it continues with the same edge of the first, though she does rock out a bit more. God is a nice funky piece that has a great beat oddly enough. Most people who are familiar with Tori’s work have heard Cornflake Girl but if you haven’t heard it analog you really are missing something. The genres of music where mood and tone is a vital element get the most out of analog. When you listen to jazz, punk, blues, or a piece as personal as The Waitress, vinyl gives the songs life in a way that digital can’t.
Speaking of The Waitress, when Rhino did the vinyl re-release of Under The Pink they botched the balance and everything goes to the left track. The MND was able to fix it when he did the needle drop but Rhino has said they don’t intend to repress the album so there’s no chance they will fix the mistake. Pretty damned inconsiderate if you ask me. I was very impressed by the owner of our LRS (local record store), Obsessions, who was willing to take the record back even though it wasn’t at all his fault. There was no way he would make his money back but it was important that his customers be treated well. That is good customer service.
I remember the first time I put Horses on a turntable. In many ways it was my introduction to punk rock. Patti Smith reached through the speakers and kicked my ass. The Robert Mapplethorpe picture on the cover was completely different from the usual made up and sexualized woman rockers at the time. Her voice ripped out of the speakers with no regard for the standard rock and roll conventions. And the lyrics, they were poetry. I mean real poetry, you could read them completely separate from the songs and be impressed as hell. It’s no surprise that people like Michael Stipe, Morrissey, and Shirley Manson have talked about how much Horses meant to them.
When I got the chance to get the album on vinyl again I jumped for it. Listening to again almost 40 years later, I have to say it is just as powerful as it was then. Once again, listening to the vinyl vs the digital versions it was a clear choice. I was back to that first listening. Back to the 70’s when Patti was just starting, before she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, before she was named a Commander of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture, and before she won the National book award. There are few musicians who have stood up for themselves like Patti, who have had the influence over the industry like she has and who kick ass like she does.
Now if I was a DJ I’d be putting on Shirley Manson’s solo album Angelfish and play her cover of Patti Smith’s song Kimberly from the Horses album because it would be the perfect transition. It was a video off that album for the song Suffocate Me that drew the attention of Steve Marker of Garbage and he invited her to audition. Unlike the scenes in the movies where it’s everything is perfect right from the start the first audition didn’t go well and Shirley went back to Angelfish. Then, as band are wont to do, Angelfish disintegrated. After some thought Shirley asked if she might take another stab at the job with Garbage.
It was rough because she had never done the kind of studio production that Butch Vig, Duke Erickson, and Steve Marker are masters at (Butch Vig produced Nevermind for Nirvana and a bunch of other great music, but this isn’t about him). She started writing songs and worked hard to make Garbage the unique band that it is now. They wanted something different, a band that could make songs that sounded like pop music but mixed in every kind of music from hip-hop to heavy metal and make the topics as subversive as possible. Having someone whose voice could do back flips through your mind and put out a cigarette in your heart was useful in that pursuit.
They managed to sell the band based one song, Vow. It was the only one they had completed but they sent it out and companies signed them based on that song. It was released and climbed the charts in Europe with no album to back it. When Garbage came out in 1995 the album was a major hit. The band hadn’t planned on touring, wanting to turn out music in the studio, but realized that they needed to support the album. Shirley’s ability to take over the stage quickly won them a reputation for great live shows.
Two years later they put out Version 2.0. The MND had to get this special order and had to pay a bit between ouch and wow for it. I have to say in listening to the result it was well worth the cost. The band took what they learned with the first album and built on it. Rather than going full electronica, they used the techniques to create layers of sound that back up Shirley’s straight forward vocals. The influences from bands like The Pretenders (Special) are clear but there is darkness in many of the songs, Medication especially. This time the lyrics are all Shirley’s and she gives them a depth that is uncommon in standard pop. Like a writer who can give their words extra meaning when they read them, Shirley is able to do the same thing with her lyrics. The analog recording is perfect for drawing out the depth of her vocals.
Beautiful Garbage was their third album and I remember getting into one of those behind the counter conversations that you always have at the Big Box Book Store I worked for at the time. One of the music people sneered at the album, saying that it didn’t sound like Shirley at all. While I agree they went out of their way not to sound like the first two albums, it’s Shirley all the way. The lyrics are clearly hers and her voice does the same kind of jack knife straight to the brain. It’s just the way the music layered and cut that is different. They didn’t mess with her voice at all. Personally, I think this is one of their most underrated albums and I’m really glad that The MND was able to get his hands on one of the original pressings. He had to work at it a bit but the sound is amazing. You really feel like you are walking along with Shirley, feeling her despair during Cup of Coffee.
Now I would like to point out that this is one album that doesn’t suffer nearly as much in the comparison between the analog and digital recordings. They were making this with the understanding that most of people were going to be listening to it on CDs at that point. In fact it was one of the first albums to have an extra where you go on line, mix your own versions of four of the songs and save them to your computer. Nobody was willing to put their stuff out there like that.
Garbage wouldn’t be the band it is without Shirley Manson. She brought the lyrics, the voice and the stage presence. She has influenced artists as diverse as Lady Gaga and Florence Welch. Shirley also put her time and support into the careers of musicians like Brodie Daley and Lana Del Ray when they were first getting started. Shirley is truly an asskicker.
I understand that I’m giving all of these artists short shrift by reviewing so few of their albums but it’s only fair for me to talk about the ones I have on hand right now. Trying to write about what I used to have is a rum go since we’d be dealing with wax that I had 15 or 20 years ago. I don’t feel right commenting on anything I haven’t listened to recently, so that restricts me to the library that The MND and I have collected. That being said there is so much good music out there that I may do columns about stuff I can only get digitally right now. Since that takes almost 60 GB it shouldn’t be hard to find topics.