risk-taking that pays off

Little Earthquakes (Atlantic)
Tori Amos

By Jeff Beavin

Tori Amos, your mother is calling you. Or, maybe it's your father. No, wait, it must be that sullen, estranged lover of yours. Or just those tiny voices of doubt you always hear. Whoever, tell them to keep it down. Maybe you'll sleep better at night.

In the hands of a lesser talent, the personal demons that erupt on this debut recording would consume it. Amos, however, is able to shore up the crumbling pillars of lost childhood, sexual alienation and guilt-ridden angst long enough to emerge somehow triumphant, as if by squarely facing these concerns they are rendered powerless. Along the way, Little Earthquakes assuages its lyrical urgency with melodic, occasionally whimsical musical arrangements that blend seamlessly with Amos' piano work.

In the opening track, "Crucify," Amos declares that she's "got enough guilt to start my own religion," effectively merging the recurring themes of culpability and faith. These issues spring up again in "Happy Phantom," where Amos reflects, "Every day we're getting closer/The sun is getting dim/Will we pay for who we been?"

The trouble with dwelling close to the emotional edge is that occasionally you'll fall over it. Amos, to her credit, manages to walk the precipice gingerly, only rarely allowing her songs to ring untrue. The album's starkest track, "Me and a Gun," strays too close to the great divide, unsuccessfully attempting to lend added credibility to searing story of rape with the cloying realization, "I haven't seen Barbados, so I must get out of this."

Despite its few flaws (or, perhaps, because of them), Little Earthquakes is a believable, compelling effort that leaves the listener in anticipation of further musical forays into the psyche of this artist struggling with her personal demons. Good thing for Amos. Letting such passion and desperation idle without release is just plain dangerous.