Five-Minute Record Reviews, Lilith Fair Edition: Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Tori Amos, and Chrissie Hynde!

Tori Amos - Unrepentant Geraldines

My first exposure to Tori Amos was via her late '80s band Y Kant Tori Read.  Shitty name aside, I was immediately taken by her voice, which seemed capable of scaling the most perilous heights and breathed humanity into the bombastic synth-driven production.

Two years later, her failed synth-band a distant memory, Tori Amos' Little Earthquakes saw the singer strip things back to the barest elements - piano and voice - and take the world by quiet storm.  The main difference between Amos' first album and, this, her 14th, isn't anything to do with talent or drive, but inspiration.

You can almost hear how "16 Shades of Blue" might have sounded if written and recorded in '91, but the modern version is infused with an unimaginative musical foundation and tempo.  Slow it down about 10 bpm, let the piano notes breathe on their own, and this could have been a serious return to form.  "Promise", too, could have shined if not for the demo quality of the musical arrangement.

While her voice is still capable of delivering a shiver down the spine, the performances found on Unrepentant Geraldines are perfunctory at best, devoid of the simmering intensity that made her first two albums impossible to forget.  This album, on the other hand, seems made to be forgotten.

Natalie Merchant - Natalie Merchant

Much like Amos, Merchant is a female artist of great integrity and quiet intensity who fell off the radar in the late '90s.  With this, her first album of new material in 13 years, Merchant succeeds in making the album that Tori Amos was trying to make by employing acoustic instrumentation to capture actual moments of breathtaking musical discovery as can only happen when musicians are captured in their natural habitat doing what they do best.

With standout songs like "Ladybird", Giving Up Everything", and "Black Sheep" one can't help but think that this is the album Norah Jones has been trying to make since her initial fluke success and one that, in a perfect world, would return Merchant to prominence.

Sarah McLachlan - Shine On

For an artist who was single-handedly responsible for launching the Lilith Fair movement and licensing her best-known song "Angel" to arguably one of the saddest and most emotionally manipulative TV commercials known to man, it's increasingly hard for this listener to remember the elegiac Canadian songstress that recorded the game-changing album Fumbling Towards Ecstasy twenty one years ago.

Back then, she was a singular artist, but, on Shine On, she seems lost in a formula that she very well may be responsible for creating, but has since been done to the point of overkill.  Let us first address the album title, "Shine On".  Is there anything even remotely original about a title that artists ranging from L.T.D., Jet, Riot, former Europe guitarist Kee Mercello, George Jones, and Ralph Stanley have already used on their albums?
It is this ridiculous lack of originality that fuels the entire album and, while McLachlan's voice is still in top form, it isn't enough to overcome the generic formula employed in every facet of this album's creation.

Chrissie Hynde - Stockholm

Leave it to 62-year-old post-punk pioneer Chrissie Hynde to remind female artists how it's done.  On her solo debut, Stockholm, Hynde may not have succeeded in reinventing the wheel, but at least she's managed to make a compelling album that doesn't feel like a pale shell of past efforts.
Of course, that may be because Hynde has been there and done that, committing fifteen different types of sacrilege under the name "The Pretenders" in the years since the deaths of James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon.
"You Or No One" is a perfectly understated, yet evocative mid-tempo rocker that doesn't fall back upon sappy sloganeering a la "I'll Stand By You'.  "Dark Sunglasses", meanwhile, takes a familiar chord progression and somehow creates a fetching musical foundation upon which Hynde's smoky voice proves itself still capable of seductive defiance.
As for the song featuring the guitar work of tennis great John McEnroe...if that's what Hynde needed to break the ice with Bjorn Yttling of the Swedish indie-pop outfit, Peter, Bjorn and John, I guess the end result (an unexpectedly great album) justify the means.

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