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Tori Amos
From the Choirgirl Hotel

Tori Amos likes contradictions. She's a classically trained pianist who plays pop music, a feminist who humps her piano bench in concert, a waifish nymph with a grasp of classic Greek literature. But the biggest contradiction inherent in this 34-year-old musician is how she can play such pleasant, dreamy music and still be so incredibly irritating.

Not everyone would agree, of course. Amos' previous three albums (Under the Pink, Little Earthquakes, and Boys for Pele, consecutively) sold well over a million copies each. Her fans have nicknamed themselves "Toriphiles" on the Internet, and some of them have established an Amos fanzine called Really Deep Thoughts. "She tastes like a magical leader pied-piping us into the new millennium," one Toriphile told Entertainment Weekly a while back. Journalists heard so much of this baroque babble from fans that they nicknamed it "Tori-speak." Some journalists began speaking it themselves. A writer for Spin magazine penned this gem after an Amos interview: "I am alternating between soaring on her tapestry carpet with its elaborate, gold-encrusted surface and falling into its gorgeous and bloody scenes."

Amos herself has an undeniable gift for making nonsense sound meaningful. From the Choirgirl Hotel is filled with really deep thoughts that could have been torn from any high school girl's clothbound journal. On "Spark," the pensive track that opens the album, Amos posits, "If the divine master plan is perfection/ Maybe next I'll give Judas a try/Trusting my soul to the ice cream assassin." That's a prime example of Tori-speak, a queasy combination of New Age grandiosity and Hello Kitty cuteness. It would never pass for poetry on paper, but woven into her seamless melodies, it manages to escape analysis.

Much more appealing are Amos' overtly sexual songs, such as "Raspberry Swirl." Against a backdrop of backward guitars and a steady rock rhythm, Amos sings, "If you want inside her well/Boy, you better make her raspberry swirl." On "She's Your Cocaine," the album's most adventurous track by far, Amos plays the gender-bender: "She's got you shaving your legs/ You can suck anything/But you know you wanna be me/ Put on your makeup, boy." With its stomping beat, edgy guitar, and sleazy lyrics, the song sounds almost like Pulp, or midperiod Bowie. But it's marred by Amos' affected, breathy delivery and lame wordplay ("You sign Prince of Darkness/Try squire of dimness").

Amos has often earned comparisons to Joni Mitchell for her mellifluous piano-playing and intellectual conceits. Only on "Pandora's Aquarium," a complex and moody piece in which Amos' allusions to Greek mythology actually make sense, does she approach Mitchell's caliber here. In truth, she's more closely related to Kate Bush, a gifted musician and singer whose flights of artistic fancy rarely soar as high as she imagines.

-- Rafer Guzman

Tim Hagans & Marcus Printup
(Blue Note Records)

The trumpeter Freddie Hubbard helped create the explosive hard-bop movement of the '60s. This tribute focuses almost exclusively on his output from that decade, before he shifted (some might say lost) his focus to rock-tinged jazz. Hubsongs is unique for a tribute album, because the artist being lauded is also directly involved: Hubbard produced and arranged the ten songs. As a result the album showcases his intricate compositions and the ease with which trumpeters Tim Hagans and Marcus Printup interpret them without losing any of the original fire.

The burning sessions on this release are marked by precise, soulful, and kinetic instrumentation. Hagans (who has played with Joe Lovano, Woody Herman, Thad Jones, and Dexter Gordon) and Printup (a member of Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra) are joined by Vincent Herring (alto sax), Javon Jackson (tenor sax), Benny Green (piano), Peter Washington (bass), and Kenny Washington (drums). The CD is without a weak link; crisp harmonies and seamless interplay flow through every song.

The opener is "Backlash," which combines soulful jive with blasting brass and uninhibited swing rhythms. It's the only non-Hubbard composition on the CD: Wilson Pickett wrote it especially for Hubbard. Printup, Herring, Hagans, and Green play solos on "Backlash," setting the stage for what is virtually a CD-length cutting session. Wild cascades of notes thrash to and fro but always remain true to the spirit of Hubbard's arrangements. "Happy Times" demonstrates that the trumpeter's creations were propulsive and fresh, the perfect launching pads for the tremulous, volcanic soloing that marked the hard-bop genre.

Song after song demonstrates the musicians' capacities for conquering the challenge of the material. On the sizzling "Hub Cap," Hagans and Printup trade shotgun-blast runs that are matched only by Green's aerodynamic piano-playing. Barnburners like "Crisis" and "Thermo" allow everyone to sink their chops into Hubbard's multikeyed arrangements with inventive and dynamic patterns. And just when it feels like the CD might sail out of the stereo, the session turns soulful. On "Lament for Booker," Hubbard's tribute to the late Booker Little, Printup proves the seductive power of a single, vibratoed note.

Herring and Jackson match the trumpet masters' intensity at every opportunity, and the all-Washington rhythm section drives the tunes with atomic splendor. Hubsongs is a supersonic jazz showcase that pays respectful tribute to a jazz legend.

-- Larry Getlen

David Rice

Back in the early '90s, when most of the country was moshing to the riffs of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, many Christian rockers sat quietly and took copious notes, absorbing the distorted riffs, the feedback-soaked guitar, the plaintive vocals. They learned their lessons well, if the success of Jars of Clay is any indication.

One of the musicians in the back of the classroom was a young singer-songwriter named David Rice. The 26-year-old from Houston came of age in the early '90s, and, like many Christian artists, he seems to have been at once attracted to and repelled by the grunge scene, with its combination of self-pity and pathos. Rice's career has been filled with contradictions (he has admitted to having a childhood fascination with Jews for Jesus), and he's still trying to find a synthesis -- or a fragile reconciliation -- between the spiritual and secular worlds.

With his major-label debut, Rice has hit on something. Despite his standard altrock rasp and radio-ready tunes, he's made a pretty solid album with greenelectric. While many of the lyrics maintain the grave earnestness of so many Christian artists ("We will be together after I expire"), there are enough offbeat lines to keep you on your toes ("The ribbon voice is wrapping around the table offering"). Musically, the record suffers from an illness that plagues a lot of today's bands: too few chords and too many familiar riffs. But most of the melodies are catchy, and the more experimental numbers are intriguing. The hymnlike "I See You" feels as airy as a wafer at Mass, while "Good Life Alone" deploys a triumphant string section. "Watching You Remembering" even ends with an arena-rock digression of Oasis-like proportions.

Anyone expecting the nihilism of Nirvana from a Christian rocker such as Rice will be disappointed with greenelectric. Nevertheless, Rice has proven that you can have your feedback and drink from the Holy Grail, too.

-- Steven M. Zeitchik

Paul Thorn
Hammer & Nail

A former boxer born and raised in Tupelo, Mississippi, Paul Thorn creates music that is awkwardly positioned between the worlds of country and rock, which means, in all likelihood, that this fine debut will fall by the commercial wayside. More's the pity. Hammer & Nail is a delightful collection of up-tempo rockers and bluesy ballads, distinguished by the sure melodic sense of Thorn and his songwriting partner, Billy Maddox, a fixture on Nashville's music scene.

The fare ranges from rollicking anthems ("A Heart With 4 Wheel Drive") to tales of romantic woe ("I Bet He Knows"). Thorn's wry lyricism tends to focus on his workingman's roots (as on "Double Wide Paradise," a paean to trailer park love), though he is not averse to chronicling the more unusual episodes in his life. In the scorching title track, for instance, he details his ill-fated pugilistic career: "I climbed into the ring with Roberto Duran/And the punches began to rain down/He hit me with a dozen hard uppercuts/And my corner threw in the towel."

Thorn favors lush arrangements with Wurlitzers, organ washes, a rich variety of percussive textures (congas, tambourine), and a layering of guitar washes (courtesy of Bill Hinds). "Temporarily Forever Mine" is an unflinching examination of Thorn's dissolved marriage, and "Every Little Bit Hurts" is a classic tale of heartbreak. At the other end of the spectrum, the hidden track "Joanie," about a Jehovah's Witness who's also a stripper, showcases Thorn's sense of whimsy and abundant wit. Throughout, Thorn's voice is smoky and supple. The man may have been nothing to brag about in the ring, but he more than compensates with his powerful and bracing music.

-- Steven Almond

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Steve Almond
Contact: Steve Almond
Larry Getlen
Rafer Guzman
Steven M. Zeitchik

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