Feb 14

TORI AMOS – “Professional Widow (It’s Got To Be Big)”

Popular54 comments • 9,487 views

#756, 18th January 1997

Widow Remixing rock or alternative tracks could be one of the 90s’ more thankless tasks. Keep the structure intact, stripping out and replacing the song’s undercarriage, and fans might sniff about crass chop-shop philistinism. Really go to work on it, though, rebuilding a track entirely, and the same fans might howl about not recognising any of it. But not all listeners were so precious, and in any case the remixes kept coming. It wasn’t just a case of filling the obligatory ‘CD2’, either: There was something irresistible about the idea of them, the thought that turning songs into cyborg versions of themselves might be a way of getting at an artist’s essence.

That’s not quite what’s going on here, though given his remix was apparently non-commissioned it’s fascinating to imagine quite what Armand Van Helden heard in the original “Professional Widow” to spark his collapse and reconstruction of it. I am not a Tori Amos expert, or even fan, so I asked The Lex about the record, and he told me “Widow” is from Amos’ “most difficult/stark/piano-harpsichord-shrieking-catharsis” LP (Boys For Pele). A listen bears this out – it’s a compelling event, fragmented lyrics and venomous singing across a wheezing, mixed-down harpsichord, but it defeats me as a casual critic. I get a feeling that to begin to decipher it I’d need an immersion in Tori Amos continuity. This isn’t a failing of the track as opposed to its listener, but this is a blog about how music works as pop, and “Professional Widow” isn’t playing that game: this is not a song that cares very much for the traditional pleasures and payoffs of a pop record.

And yet here it is at Number One, in a form which also, frankly, isn’t wedded to those pleasures and payoffs. Beyond its found vocals, Armand Van Helden’s do-over of “Professional Widow” has two things in common with its source. It likes to disorient you, throwing disconnected ideas and snatches of sound out across its reliably solid beat. And it concedes nothing to any alternative use you might want to make of it: this is still music with a fixed context, but now that context is “dancer” not “Tori Amos”. I’d probably have to go back to “Jack Your Body” to find a dance music Number One that cares less about working outside the club.

So to get any purchase on it I need to rewind, and think of “Professional Widow” not as a remix but as a track that happens to sample Tori Amos. Most of the dance music hits we’ve bumped into recently owe more to rave and hip-hop than to house and garage music, making “Professional Widow” a window on a scene Popular hasn’t looked at for 18 months or so. In some ways “Professional Widow” is a good snapshot of developments – in others it’s already roving forward.

The familiar first – one mid-90s tendency in house music was to break down vocals even further, until they became just one more little event in a track, something to trigger a rush or a cue to move. The bits of Tori Amos that van Helden pulls out, edits and speeds up aren’t doing much more than making the track sound trashier and hotter. They sound a bit dirty, which probably did them some good chartwise, but the real action is happening lower down, in those quick, dipping snatches of bassline under the track.

This sound – fast, bass-led, with a distorted breakdown and a chaos of high-end sounds flashing past like lights from a car window – is the “dark garage” van Helden was already exploring in 1996. His remix of Sneaker Pimps’ “Spin Spin Sugar” – used a lot of the same tricks as “Professional Widow”, just less brashly deployed. That remix has been credited with helping invent ‘speed garage’, the London sound of 1997, which mixed in jungle and ragga influences to get to a more menacing place.

It’s rare to have to write paragraphs that genre-dense on Popular, because usually clubland trends don’t break through into the Number One list as dramatically as here: more often, dancefloor innovation reaches us pre-chewed. “Professional Widow” is closer to the edge of dance music, though, which is one reason for its odd, raw, provisional sound: it’s a style that’s not quite ready to crossover yet, doing so anyway. What we’re left with are fleeting emotional impressions – the joyous hedonism of early-90s house music tipping over into something rougher-edged, more decadent, and more intoxicating. The moment on “Professional Widow” that brings this most home is the breakdown, Tori’s fractured “Beau-ti-ful ang-el” sung high over a swirl of sleazed-up, echoing keyboards before the party starts again. So it was her track, all along.



  1. 1
    To Mewing! (@tomewing) on 2 Feb 2014 #

    Honey bring it close to my link yeah http://t.co/9HpZzP1bh0 [Popular entry]

  2. 2
    Billy Hicks on 2 Feb 2014 #

    Utterly brilliant. A dance track I keep overlooking due to bizarrely not being on any of the Now compilations where a lot of my iTunes collection originates from, it’s one of those “What the hell is this?” initial impressions that the more you listen to it, the more it takes hold until finally winning you over. In my case, Dave Pearce’s ‘Dance Anthems’ Sunday night Radio 1 show in 2004, where at first I thought the “Beautiful angel” bit was mixing into a different song.

    Armand was on fire back then, his remixes of ‘Sugar Is Sweeter’ and ‘Spin Spin Sugar’ are stunning pieces of work and I have a guilty pleasure for his slightly mental remix of Gary Numan’s ‘Cars’ in 2000. Happily we’ll be seeing him on Popular again in the future. A strong 8.

  3. 3
    punctum on 2 Feb 2014 #

    You wonder what more Tori Amos has to do to gain the respect she fulsomely deserves. A wholly original singer/songwriter, a cunningly noble media player and a nonpareil interpreter of the songs of others; does she have to rechristen herself Cat Power (with all due respect to Chan Marshall) to get out of the critical shadow of being perceived as the Steve Harley to Kate Bush’s Bowie? Indeed, with her third album Boys For Pele you could almost argue that she out-adventures Kate, and the fact that it has now overtaken Little Earthquakes to become her best-selling album indicates that sometimes it is worth not underestimating the intelligence of one’s public. It is a confounding and exhausting but ultimately cathartic listen; an unremitting self-exorcism of demons, splitting atoms within the pain of broken relationships, deceased friends, the hurt of trying to reassemble someone’s physical being that their spirit might be resurrected (Isis and Osiris; fourteen body parts, fourteen discrete songs)…

    …and pseudo-grief. The album’s most enraged track, “Professional Widow” blusters its way down blazing corridors of ire; pounding what is perhaps pop’s first example of thrash harpsichord, Amos rails at someone who may or may not be Courtney Love (“Slag pit, slag shit…/Don’t blow those brains yet…/Starfucker just like my daddy, yes, selling his baby, yes…”) at an unrelenting pace of attack, breaking cover only for an ironic nightmare of cosy waltz piano filled with lullabies of false promises: “Beautiful angel calling/’We got every rerun of Muhammed Ali’.”

    Taking her rage as both start and end points, Armand van Helden’s “Star Trunk Funkin’ Mix” compresses it all within a starfuckingly claustrophobic dance remix, a bassline cutting like twisted girders of molten steel, a beat of Olympian thunder, with only a few of Amos’ words rewound onto themselves and added as dots of reproach throughout: “Ah, honey bring it close to my lips, yeah” (his lips? or the gun?), “It’s gotta be big,” subtly speeded up to make it sound like “It’s gotta be a pig” (referring to the notorious suckling album cover as metaphor for capitalism); and, as with the original, atomising briefly into a hallucinogenic nightmare where the “Muhammed Ali” sequence blurs through like a premonition of something (w)hol(l)y horrific before the fatal scissors of the beat slash their way back into the foreground. Eventually it dissolves into long, floating clouds of AR Kane handless guitars (and therein lies the spiritual as well as the physical connection with “Pump Up The Volume”); it is as danceable as (star)fuck but so unremitting is its merciless beat that it seems to cattleprod humanity into an unforgiving hellhole of sweat and dehumanisation – the widow’s lying trauma finding its true home, in the marketplace of slow death, and a far more arresting depiction of the disco as potential abbatoir than another 1997 number one I could mention. As Tori warns on another song from this album – the devastatingly demonic “In The Springtime Of His Voodoo” – “Got an angry snatch/Girls you know what I mean.”

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    Auntie Beryl on 2 Feb 2014 #

    Whilst the 90s aren’t remembered by most as particularly sonically ground-breaking, that two singles as uncompromising as this and Setting Sun could reach number one in relatively short order demonstrates how much of a grip dance culture had on the mainstream (as opposed to the relatively few Britpop chart toppers, Oasis aside).

    This is a solid 8 from me. Not special enough for more, but I never skip it when it pops up.

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    Ed on 2 Feb 2014 #

    Courtney Love ‘s answer record, to this and her many other critics: http://vimeo.com/27192330

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    thefatgit on 2 Feb 2014 #

    It’s refreshing to be enlightened about “Professional Widow”, because my percepton of this track was all bassline and Cocteau Twins-like vocals for so many years. I guess I let the whole thing wash over me so many times without being the slightest bit curious about the source.

    Misheard by me: “I’m only bringing toast to my lips”, “It’s gotta beat big”. Disjointed lifts from a song I had never heard. And the stretched out “beautiful angel” bit was the euphoric payoff. I should have loved this wholeheartedly but I didn’t. I think it deserves to be considered more favourably by me now. In anticipation of his one, in my mind I would have said 6. It should get more with a fresh listen. Thanks to Tom & Marcello for answering questions I never bothered to ask. Shame on me.

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    Tom on 2 Feb 2014 #

    Of course, as soon as I mentioned in the pub that this was up next the table erupted with “Honey bring the toast to my lips yeah”

    Mmm, toast.

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    Tom on 2 Feb 2014 #

    #3 Great dots-joining between this and the original, thanks Punctum. I hope more people who are actually familiar with Tori’s career join in this thread – she is a (somewhat shameful) blind spot for me.

    #4 This is the upside of the Fanbase/One-Week-Wonder Years – 1997 has some very rum things getting to #1, as we’ll see.

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    mapman132 on 2 Feb 2014 #

    And so Tom cruises right on into 1997….the first of five straight one-week #1’s. It seemed like a ridiculous amount of turnover at the time….little did I know….

    Anyhow, in the 2010’s, this record would probably be credited as “It’s Got To Be Big” by Armand van Helden feat. Tori Amos. I was unfamiliar with either the original record or the remix here so I listened to both. It’s not so much a remix so a complete chopping apart and reconstituting into some sort of Frankenrecord. Sometimes I like this sort of thing and perhaps this would work for me after repeated listens, but for now it really doesn’t. 4/10.

    With that said, very eagerly anticipating the next entry!

  10. 10
    Steve Mannion on 2 Feb 2014 #

    This is at least a 9 for me due to the original impact of its relative invention. A blast of fresh air in a saturated scene. I first heard it on the Essential Selection the previous Summer and was stopped in my tracks, thrilled by the propulsive funk guitar loop, stunned by the incongruous ambience of the breakdown (the influence of Jungle on Van Helden led to him not just adopting its deeper darker basslines but, on most of his remixes from this time, bringing in a choir of tranquil synths after cutting out the beat) and those howling guitars which recalled M/A/R/R/S although initially I was convinced they’d been sampled from Soundgarden’s ‘Black Hole Sun’.

    TA first dipped a toe into dance remixes with her ‘God’ single from 1994 taken on by Carl Craig and CJ Bolland but it stood as a lone foray into clubland until her third album. US labelmate Brian Transeau remixed her ‘Talula’ single and they then worked together on ‘Blue Skies’ which had charted inbetween the original release of ‘Professional Widow’ (as the AA side to ‘Hey Jupiter’) and its re-emergence a few months later. It’s worth noting that the other mix of ‘Professional Widow’ came from the luminary Mark Kinchen and so whether or not Tori was hand-picking remixers herself the choices were markedly adept and tasteful.

    The remix was boosted by a video which was a compilation of clips from all of TA’s previous ones (and so again not a chart-topper that lent itself to a Top of the Pops performance). But rather than a cheap gimmick this came off as an effective tribute to TA’s pop career and striking image up to that point and having been somewhat reduced on record it was nice to see her maintain a strong presence visually throughout PW’s unusual lifespan. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for a well-edited montage there.

    Oddly there was no attempt to cash in further on PW’s success from either party here. No additional singles from ‘Boys For Pele’ followed and Van Helden himself took a major swerve by releasing a more cut-up hip-hop inspired album (‘Sampleslaya – Enter The Meatmarket’) that underwhelmed much of his newfound fanbase rather than hitting them with the kind of thing he would eventually consolidate success with a few years later.

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    hectorthebat on 2 Feb 2014 #

    Sample watch: As well as the Tori Amos ‘sample’, the drums are lifted from ‘Trinidad’ by John Gibbs and the U.S. Steel Orchestra.

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    nixon on 2 Feb 2014 #

    Something about this getting to #1 that has always confused me, and that’s it being a re-release. As alluded to upthread, this (the remix) was a nominal double A side with “Hey Jupiter” a few months earlier, though both MTV and radio only played this one. Result: scraping the top 20 and then gone. How/why did reissuing it as an A side a few months later, no new video, no new anything, propel it to the top? Shades of Boney M.

    Oh, 8 for me, by the way.

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    Auntie Beryl on 2 Feb 2014 #

    I seem to remember the label deleted the double A side pretty sharpish when it became clear that the Van Helden mix had mainstream potential. Demand built up over the autumn and by New Year it was ready to go.

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    Nanaya on 2 Feb 2014 #

    Absolutely loved this, danced to it at synthpop clubs & was genuinely surprised by its excellence. I was completely amazed, at the time, to have bought more than 1 single that ended up at #1! A curious & enjoyable musical time when the top end of the charts was an unexpectedly quirky affair. The plethora of other goth-compatible tunes in there surely had a lot to do with bolstering the brief flowering of the ‘Spice Goth’ phenomenon…

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    Rich on 2 Feb 2014 #

    The remix was not alone in the Top 5 during its week-long reign, for it could also be heard in the background of ‘People Hold On’ (The Bootleg Mixes) by Lisa Stansfield vs The Dirty Rotten Scoundrels which had entered at No. 4.

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    Kat but logged out innit on 2 Feb 2014 #

    Yikes, the lighting/Tori’s makeup in the banner pic makes her look like Vladimir Putin :( :(

    Love Professional Window of course, big pigs and all. Even my grumpy teenage grunge self couldn’t deny this was a Tune, especially after the double-whammy of the Chemical Brothers and the Prodigy (both priming my brain for squally industrial noises and super-choppy vocals). All the above seemed more grown-up (cooler/angrier/sexier) than the novelty rave and chart-bosh from the last five or six years. I was certainly not cool or sexy, but I was certainly angry (because I was not cool or sexy). Unfortunately I wasn’t old enough to go clubbing so I had to make do with watching late night Channel 4 instead. And by that I mean taping it and watching it after I came home from school.

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    Speedwell54 on 2 Feb 2014 #

    This was exciting. The Chemical Brothers may have paved the way for this sort of stuff at number one, but at the time no venn diagram would have these two artists co-habiting.

    I am a bit of fan, but it has crept up on me really; just checked now, and I realise I have her first 9 studio albums. Ok so I’m a big Tori fan. At the time I unselfishly thought this might give her a leg up and wider recognition, but probably was also secretly quite pleased when she didn’t really capitalise.

    I get the the first paragraph from Punctum -well most of it- and the frustration. Btw Cat Power is ‘the greatest’. Kate Bush comparisons were not surprising, but I think most people have moved on with that – even if it is just to Regina Spektor.

    The “most difficult/stark….” line from Tom’s write up is spot on.
    The original Professional Widow and tracks from ‘Boys From Pele’ are certainly less accessible than the majority of her previous two albums. (Under The Pink is still a favourite of mine) Later when she moved away from her piano based sound for a few albums I personally found they needed a lot more effort for me to ‘get’ them and lyrically it is nearly always serious stuff. That’s not to say they’re not worth the effort.

    Looking forward to a new album from her very soon – March- and it’s not the classical stuff we have had recently. I predict ‘return to form’ will feature in the reviews. 8

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    lonepilgrim on 2 Feb 2014 #

    this didn’t register with me at the time but listening to it now I’m impressed by the act of alchemy the AVH has performed. My immediate frame of reference was ‘Pump up the Volume’ – partly because that was when I last paid a lot of attention to Dance music, but also because of the elastic bass line and atmospheric whooshes.
    I’ve just listened to Tori’s original and was pretty impressed by that too although the initial impulse to transform that song into this hit defies rational interpretation.

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    JLucas on 2 Feb 2014 #

    I agree with the consensus that this record has more to do with Armand Van Helden than Tori Amos – it had little discernable influence on her career, besides a few more high-profile remixes being pushed out. She only made one subsequent top 40 appearence – the remarkable ‘Spark’ – and quickly declined into a high-profile niche act.

    But of course, she had scored hits under her own steam before this. As a non-clubber, I’d prefer that we were talking about Cornflake Girl here, not just because I like it more but because I find the fact that Tori was briefly a chart force quite interesting. Being too young to really remember, I presume she was caught up in the wave that saw the likes of Bjørk and PJ Harvey score in the charts. It’s a shame there aren’t more (any, that I can recall…) number ones that reflect that mid 90s alt-female movement.

    Her influence seems under-acknowledged these days, possibly because, sadly, she hasn’t made a decent album in over a decade. But I’d be surprised if the success of this single didn’t at least indirectly inspire Florence & The Machine’s collaborations with Calvin Harris.

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    Lex on 2 Feb 2014 #

    I was a huge Tori fan when this came out, in that teenage this-artist-means-everything-to-me way. I’d been completely obsessed by Boys For Pele for eight months, and the original was one of my favourite tracks on it, when I first heard the remix on the “Hey Jupiter” single. Had no idea what to expect or who Van Helden was and remember jumping out of my skin when the huge dance beat came in. Was almost as surprised when it randomly (to me) re-emerged a few months later and reached No 1. Never hated it, was always grateful on some level that it got Tori to No 1, it was probably at least partly responsible for me getting into dance music properly and eventually growing to acknowledge it as a classic. I almost always play it when I DJ.

    Steve M correct about the context – Tori was dabbling in dance a lot around this time, perhaps strangely given how she was paring down her own music and taking it to starker extremes. Another point of interest is that she’s always been willing to transform her songs herself, especially live, so the idea that any given song has any number of looks is fairly integral to her work. The US “Hey Jupiter” single featured the Merry Widow version of “Professional Widow” – a harmonium-only live version which is even more terrifying than the original.

    Also noteworthy is the effect it had on her own music. Steve says that no one tried to directly cash in on its success but Tori’s follow-up album From The Choirgirl Hotel (one of my favourite albums ever) found her experimenting heavily with electronics and percussion – not just dabbling or using them as ornamentation but diving headlong in and producing some pretty bizarre results (“Hotel”, “iieee”). Most pertinent to the Van Helden remix was her own surprisingly amazing go at writing a 4×4 house banger, “Raspberry Swirl”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0O2-xV5XEA

    You’d think “Raspberry Swirl” would have been an obvious single to push at that point but it wasn’t even the lead (that was the more conventional “Spark”) – it did get that excellent video but the album campaign descended into a mess of pulled or unpromoted singles (due to label politics, it later emerged). Tori went even further outwards in terms of electronic experimentation on her 1999 album To Venus And Back – I consider 1996-99 her imperial phase artistically, during which she mastered a huge range of styles and sounds she really had no right to and invented a fair few besides, so it feels absolutely right to me that this remix is part of that. Always hated the way Radiohead got critics drooling when they started to rehash Warp ideas, after Tori had done the rock-artist-goes-electronic in such an inventive and often-baffling way years previously.

    Also, one weird thing about this remix to me, given how much of a radical transformation it is, is how much of the original’s spirit it shares. AVH only sampled a few lines, but it’s less like a recontextualisation and more stripping the song to its core. “Professional Widow” rattles along at a furious pace; it’s filthy, sexual, angry and scratch-her-eyes-out mean, and that’s true of both original and remix. Even the “beautiful angel” section plays the same role – this mocking delicacy as brief respite from the pummeling thrash harpsichord/banging house beats. I wouldn’t be surprised if Van Helden was a Tori fan himself – he also loops Tori’s gasp of “I said” throughout the remix, which is one of her most well-known ad libs (to the extent that one of her biggest fansites was yessaid.com).

    Original probably had the best combination of opening and closing lines of Tori’s career or maybe anyone’s career. “Slag pit, stag shit, honey bring it close to my lips yeah” to “give me peace, love and a hard cock”.

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    Lex on 2 Feb 2014 #

    A few quotes from Tori on the remix:

    “I was called by a friend who was the head of dance at Atlantic America and he had the feeling that Armand van Helden could do something with the album. Boys For Pele was a very extreme record and very acoustic and Armand said he understood the character of the girl in ‘Professional Widow.'”

    Let’s talk about Professional Widow. Were you consulted on that remix?
    “Of course. People can’t just take my masters and do what they will with them. You have to understand something. I have total control of my work. I’m very fierce about my music. It’s not for someone to tamper with just because they think they can make a buck. I made a very obscure record last time and Johnny D, a DJ friend of mine in New York, said ‘hey it would be great if you did a few dance remixes’ and suggested this guy van Helden. It was that simple – nobody thought anything would happen with it. I certainly didn’t think it would become, like, a benchmark in dance music.” [Attitude – May 1998]

    Well, you can be graphic too. How about the remix of “ Professional Widow “? (“it’s got to be big.”)
    “Well, the lyric is ‘Slag pit, stag shit. Honey, bring it close to my lips. Don’t blow those brains yet. It’s got to be big .’ Could be anything – death, a body part. The remix concentrated on a line. Obviously that’s a place where women can really strike, though. Women can really wound a guy in that way if they want to, and that remix could prey on man’s worst fears.” [Esquire – Oct 1999]

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    @faulknmd on 2 Feb 2014 #

    @mrwilsunshine A blog I frequent has reached a potentially interesting point for you. Below-post comments included. http://t.co/A69vFGCO7N

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    Andrew Farrell on 3 Feb 2014 #

    #19: I think Q did a fair job of trying to cap it at those three – though the front cover is keen to assure fans that there’s still more hot news on the Beatles inside too.

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    Chelovek na lune on 3 Feb 2014 #

    Really glad a Tori Amos record is here. A brilliant, challenging, demanding, artist, often disturbing, stabbing at the listener with difficult, intense,violent feelings and thoughts. My recollection is that she first came to attention in the UK as a support act for Billy Bragg, around the time her ‘Me And A Gun EP’ (including the first release of ‘Silent All These Years’) was released. I loved ‘Little Earthquakes’ and some of ‘Under The Pink’ but, at the time, found ‘Boys for Pele’ a bit too heavy-going, and lost track of her thereafter, my life having moved on. I’m a bit ambivalent about this remix, for the (too) obvious (and lazy) reason that ‘It’s barely a Tori Amos record’, and I was not a clubber, so….but…her voice..in the ‘beautiful angel’ segment stuns, still….and of all those 90s tracks that had very radical remix makeovers, this is certainly among the most interesting…

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    Ed on 3 Feb 2014 #

    I loved ‘Little Earthquakes’ at the time: picked it up on a recommendation from someone (David Stubbs?) at MM, and played it to death in 1992. Lost touch with Amos after that, but I’ve now been inspired to go back and check out the subsequent albums.

    One surprise was that the “official” version of Professional Widow on ‘Boys for Pele’ now seems to be the AVH mix. That’s true on Spotify at least. I couldn’t find the original anywhere. I guess that could explain Punctum’s point @3 about ‘Boys’ now being her best-selling album: it’s got the number one hit on it.

    Some other possiby telling context: this cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit comes from the spring of 1992, less than a year after it was first released: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRuTkB9L5jc

    I think it’s beautiful and powerful, but I can see how the world might be a better place if Simon Cowell had never heard it.

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    Rory on 3 Feb 2014 #

    Ed, it’s on YouTube – found it there last night while deciding how I would rate the remix. (Or starting to; still mulling it over.)

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    Cumbrian on 3 Feb 2014 #

    I had the same problem as Ed when I was listening on Spotify – the original is nowhere to be found. What I did find though was a whole bank of Tori Amos gigs from 2007, and thus 10s of live versions of Professional Widow. I listened to a few. Lex’s point about her transforming her own songs is dead on, if this is any indication, as within the space of about 2 months, she’d gone from singing a lot of the song, to turning into an amalgam of the AVH version and a sort of rock instrumental. The Merry Widow version is brilliant and not a little bit unsettling. Anyway, it’s broken me in to an artist that I had not listened to anything by ever, so now I am exploring her work.

    I’ll bow to those with more knowledge and expertise on this, in terms of its link to Tori Amos’s work (both on Professional Widow and in a wider context). Lex’s posts are pretty helpful actually but I can’t engage on those terms, I think, as I don’t know enough to do so (yet – hopefully). The question then, for me, is whether this works or not. I think it does but it’s not the kind of thing that I would ordinarily seek out, nor have loads of experience of; the rhythm of it is memorably propulsive though and the snatches of lyric actually do serve as hooks. When I am struggling, I always rest on the mark scheme – 6 or 7 seems to fit how I feel – probably somewhere in between. I’m probably more on the side of 7.

    My mishearing was “Saturday Gig” – in my defence “s’gotta be” does sound a bit like Saturday.

    If the original is actually about Courtney Love, then it’s pretty close to the knuckle. If Celebrity Skin (linked above by Ed) is a riposte of sorts, then I, frankly, can see what Kurt saw in her from the video (and her role in Man On The Moon); when she’s not strung out, Courtney is a good looking woman – although I am never likely to meet her, so I don’t know what she’s like personally. The real riposte though, for me, is the cover of 99 Problems that can be found on Youtube. It’s all fun and games to start with, but by the end, when she’s howling out “there ain’t nothing sweet ’bout how I hold my gun”, well – it’s pretty clear to me that she’s still understandably damaged. How could you not be?

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    jim5et on 3 Feb 2014 #

    On the Courtney thing, what never comes across in pictures or video is the sheer size of her head – it’s fucking enormous. The few times I spoke to or saw her close up, aside from the endless flow of babble the defining memory of her is that her head is, like, Frank Sidebottom big.

    But that’s not important right now. Punctum’s description of Tori Amos as Steve Harley to Kate Bush’s Bowie is close to how I’ve always thought of her, though “Neil Gaiman to KB’s Moorcock” is maybe nearer the mark for me, as the association with Sandman and henna tattoos has always put me off. I’m going to listen, though, as the original version of Professional Widow is fantastic.

    As, of course, is the remix – this came out right at the fag end of my clubbing days, just as I’d settled down and stopped dancing every weekend, but it has that whiff of a massive mainstream Brighton club. It’s the bassline that kills me, as well as the “Beautiful Angel” dropout


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    Lex on 3 Feb 2014 #

    FWIW Tori’s always denied that “Professional Widow” is about Courtney Love, she’s tended to call it her Lady Macbeth song and speak in terms of wariness/respect about the titular character. It could still be about Courtney obv, but I don’t think it’s necessarily an attempt at a takedown.

    Was poking around on the extensive Tori internet and I never realised that apparently an entire remix album of Boys For Pele was planned in the wake of “Professional Widow”, but scrapped! The King Britt remix of “Father Lucifer” did come out eventually but I’d kill to hear what Todd Terry did with “Doughnut Song”. I think some of the rationale may have been that Tori’s large gay fanbase provided her with some ready-made overlap with clubbing culture. I don’t think she was ever as surprising a club queen as people might have thought.

    I forgot that Boys For Pele was reissued with the AVH remix replacing the original. Completely bizarre given how little it fits on the album. (BT’s single mix of “Talula” replaced the original too but that was for the best, it just neatened up a song I found quite clumsy to start with.)

    I’ve said that I think Tori’s artistic peak was 1996-99, just completely in command of a vast range of sounds and songwriting styles, but anyone getting into her for the first time should probably just do it chronologically – you get a real sense of how she developed as an artist. Sadly not much to recommend post-2002 though, apart from the surprisingly half-decent American Doll Posse. Am endeavouring to ignore the upcoming album based on its terrible title that I can’t even bring myself to type out.

    As the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” cover posted by #25 shows, as well as transforming her own songs, Tori’s always been a keen reinterpreter of others’ songs. A lot of the time this does mean just singing it beautifully over solo piano but a couple of really startling covers were of Eminem’s “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7YxrYKQBP8) – horror movie strings and lyrics whispered in your ear – and Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jzD-h_9T41Q) – cascading drum loops and full-throated blues hollering.

  30. 30
    Lex on 3 Feb 2014 #

    As for the Kate Bush comparisons – I don’t see them at all. Have gone on about them elsewhere on the internet at length but apart from sharing an instrument and a similar vocal range, their styles of singing and songwriting are worlds apart. Possibly an ocean apart: they’re both very much products of their home countries. Kate discomfits because she can be surreal (and presents this as completely normal); Tori discomfits because she can be visceral (and presents herself as a threat to power in a way Kate rarely has).

    My theory for Tori never getting her critical due – which she NEVER has – has always been that she reminds sexist male writers of their “crazy” ex-girlfriends (I have actually heard this dismissal of her on multiple occasions).

  31. 31
    Alan not logged in on 3 Feb 2014 #

    Back in the day that Q article (Bjork-PJ-Tori) that YMOF linked to marked my first attempt to appreciate Tori. With all the other Kate comparisons floating around, and now being trifected with Bjork and PJ it seemed a cert. It was not. That cover of “97 Bonnie & Clyde” Lex mentioned killed any hope that she’d ever be my sort of thing.

    My main memory of this song is that it was out-of-time somehow – and I note people saying it was one of those “big in the clubs, took ages to get an official single” affairs, which would explain that – thanks! This was from a time when I was clubbing a lot, but it fell into a genre I didn’t actively chase or talk about. Even a few years later I’d be enjoying the speed garages oblivious to any heritage owed (apparently) to AvH, and probably way after it was “in” (Home, Leicester Square, 2000 had a good floor of SG).

  32. 32
    Cumbrian on 3 Feb 2014 #

    #29/30: I’ll take that advice re: chronology cheers Lex. Probably more thoughtful than just listening to a load of random live gigs from 2007 (after enjoying the PW versions, I just started listening to the gigs to see if there was anything else that I enjoyed as much – unsurprisingly, this was not a clever way to start my listening, but seemed like a good idea at the time).

    Re: the Kate Bush stuff – maybe someone else can say why they see that – but the point I wanted to make is that these sorts of comparisons happen a lot in sport too in my experience (i.e. ones informed by personal characteristics rather than artistic choices in music, in playing style for sports). There’s currently a minor wrestle going on in American sports about the fact that black players are only ever compared to other black players in the major US sports, even if they actually play much more like white players. It’s the type of thinking that claims, to pick only one example, Sloane Stephens is the “new Serena Williams” even though she has none of the attributes of Serena that I can see (besides the obvious, getting away from which is the point of the wrestle). Now that I think about it, I don’t tend to see female musicians compared to males too often.

    Re: your theory. I can believe it’s been said – but still, WTF?

  33. 33
    Andrew Farrell on 3 Feb 2014 #

    I was listening to a lot of Tori Amos during her first few albums – I’m ashamed to say it was largely due to an American girl I was fond of, and disappeared after that ended – but her devotion to interpretation is pretty thoroughgoing – there was many-copied fan album passed around amongst the faithful of her covers – several of which were amazing (and several after a while seemed “Generic Tori”).

    #30 I understand that distinction, but I can’t really get on board with it because Kate Bush has always seemed to be playing up the witchy woman – it’s one of the reasons I don’t really like her work.

  34. 34
    Chelovek na lune on 3 Feb 2014 #

    To me the major distinction between Bush and Amos (but there are others) is that the latter has this religious pathology (neither work intended to carry any pejorative implication) that informs and intensifies and shapes some of her work (I might say “much of her work”: but as I am not – yet – familiar with anything she has recorded after 1997, I don’t know if that would be accurate…for the earlier stuff it certainly is) – I guess this ties into the description earlier of Amos’s work as being “visceral” in a way that Bush’s generally isn’t – or at least not to the same degree. Bush is a bit more playful, even when she is being “deep”; Amos not only “means it man”, but she opens wounds in public and lets the anger bleed out.

  35. 35
    anto on 3 Feb 2014 #

    I’m gonna need more time with this one. Two artists whose respective works have largely been a matter of indifference to me. It’s undoubtedly radical – relentless but somehow elusive, mercurial even. I haven’t heard the original and Courtney Love happens to me an unfashionable cause of mine. Actually now I think about it I think is one of only two Tori Amos songs I’ve ever heard from start to finish. I seem to recall there were a lot of plaudists for her first album followed by an insidious backlash (i.e you could detect it but it was more raised eyebrows than verbal bashings). Unusually it was Q magazine that was probably her strongest champion in the UK – albeit in a slightly squirmy ‘ooh shes’ a girl and she writes her own songs’ sort of way.
    After such a long review I was expecting this to be a 9 or 10. That 7 looks a bit anti-climatic sitting there.

  36. 36
    23 Daves on 3 Feb 2014 #

    #30 You’re probably right, and I think that possibly sits in tandem with the fact that a lot of her fans are rather fanatical about her work, could occasionally be accused of being guilty of over-analysing it and also occasionally seem somewhat deranged in their enthusiasm. I think that’s counted against other artists in the past as well – for example, Depeche Mode. Music journos seem really suspicious of any modern artists who have a slavish pencil-chewing, note-taking following. Perhaps because they see that element as being their job? Or every time they put pen to paper about them they get a bunch of angry emails/ letters correcting them? Who knows?

    On another subject, did this record actually win Tori Amos any new fans? A good friend of mine was a huge Tori fan and was visibly delighted when this went to number one, because she felt it would bring her to a whole new audience – whereas I don’t get the impression that many people who went out and bought this single were suddenly converted to her other material.

  37. 37
    Lex on 3 Feb 2014 #

    #32 Very familiar with the bizarre and unwarranted Serena/Sloane comparisons despite having little in common in terms of game style, mentality, personality or background – there was even the awkwardness of the media assuming Serena was Sloane’s mentor this time last year.

    #34 Yes, the religious pathology is def one of the key differences – and the same goes for the ways in which they tackle family, sexuality, patriarchy etc as well. Kate Bush populates her songs with characters and largely absents her private self from proceedings – of course that’s a bit reductive but the point is no one analyses her life for clues to her lyrics. Whereas Amos’s characters all seem to come from, or end up as, parts of her in some way. Or to put it another way, Tori was more interested in catharsis whereas Kate was more interested in performativity. And when Tori stopped being interested in catharsis she ended up having even less in common with Kate Bush than previously.

    Tori’s discography summed up for new listeners –

    Little Earthquakes: the “canon” one that probably tallies most with what your idea of her is. Production sounds dated but tension between conventional arrangements and confessional lyrics was always key

    Under The Pink: Half of it is as close to radio-friendly pop as Tori ever got. Then in the second half she starts displaying her sonic ambition with a bunch of complex, loosely structured solo piano songs influenced by 20th century Russian classical composers

    Boys For Pele: the latent Diamanda Galás tendencies come to the forefront. I’ve said this is her most difficult album but the starkness of the arrangements and the wholesale abandonment of verse-chorus-verse structure belies the fact that it’s actually unbelievably generous melodically (compare this to eg Joanna Newsom – another songwriter with virtuoso talent who is largely hook-averse). Lyrics on BFP are more, uh, opaque than ever; also more riven with meaning

    From The Choirgirl Hotel: About-turn again for the album on which Tori’s sounded most in command of everything she turned her hand to: 4×4 house bangers, country storytelling, aqueous jazz, high-drama electronic experiments, cock-rock, piano ballads about Jackie Kennedy. Incredibly percussive even on the more conventional full band tracks

    To Venus And Back: Studio album one huge electronic trip; more abstract and less songful than FTCH but so rich in sounds and language, the production is absolutely incredible. Live album is pretty powerful (and it’s good to have a record of her full band show) but probably a bit forbidding for non-fans unused to her various live tics

    Strange Little Girls: a concept covers album made to get out of a contract that ends up being way more interesting and successful than it has any right to be – way more than just a curio, and probably foreshadowed the next decade where the only thing Tori’s any good at any more is reinterpretations of existing songs

    Scarlet’s Walk: at the time was massively disappointed by this very soft, very pretty-sounding, very AOR album wrapped up in an unconvincing state-of-the-nation concept; have come round to it in a huge way since. Overlong yes, but SO pretty-sounding and really her last great work. Fleetwood Mac fans would like this one

    The Beekeeper: Terrible on every level. Concept is bullshit, lyrics are banal, arrangements are boring

    American Doll Posse: Actually surprisingly good. Probably quite telling that Tori had to create five separate characters to tap into what used to make her interesting – especially the snarling, angry one; it seemed like an admittance that Tori herself couldn’t do that any more. Overlong again, but not as much as you might think

    Abnormally Attracted To Sin: The music wasn’t good enough to counter that fucking title

    Midwinter Graces: Christmas album with horribly Photoshopped artwork that I listened to once

    Night Of Hunters: Variations on a bunch of classical pieces in the service of another underwhelming concept (Celtic whimsy meets marriage counselling, basically). Opening track is amazing then it goes downhill. Her approach to classical music is a lot more staid and overthought here than it was back on Under The Pink. Good tour though, reinterpreting her back catalogue with the aid of a STRING OCTET

    Unrepentant Geraldines: the new one. Yes, that is the title. Dying inside

  38. 38
    Lex on 3 Feb 2014 #

    #36 The music press’s attitude towards Tori is probably a huge reason I became a music journalist myself. Rule number one, any music journalist disdainful of obsessive fans is not to be trusted

  39. 39
    Izzy on 3 Feb 2014 #

    I saw Tori in concert at what I thought was this time, but working backwards must’ve been around a year earlier.

    I’d like to fill you in, but embarrassingly it is by far the drunkest I’ve ever been at a gig, to the extent that I might as well not have been there. I hate that, completely forgotten experiences. What if it was amazing? So now I don’t.

    All I remember was kind of snapping to at the end to see Tori lolling from a grand piano, against a blue-and-gold starry backdrop. Then the audience, who seemed to be all young lawyers, flooding out and not even turning round when she came back for an encore. It was my first encounter with such a crowd*, and rather bewildering.

    * well almost. I do recall a cool guy behind the counter in Our Price telling me he’d been to Dinosaur Jr, but he ‘only stayed ’til they played Freak Scene’. I think he was a cool guy. If it was, say, Radiohead and Creep he’d seem like an abhorrent guy.

  40. 40
    Mark G on 4 Feb 2014 #

    Guys, let’s not forget her version of “Ring My Bell”


  41. 41
    Ed on 4 Feb 2014 #

    @40 Heh. To raise the tone a little, this is awesome:


    Good quote, too:

    “Sometimes you don’t know how music affects people. I embrace that because I don’t think that just because I talk about emotional stuff that it’s not motherfucker stuff. I’ll stand next to the hardest fucking heavy metal band on any stage in the world and take them down, alone, by myself. Gauntlet laid down, see who steps up. See who steps up! I’ll take them down at 48. And they know I will. Because emotion has power that the metal guys know is just you can’t touch it. Insanity can’t touch the soul. It’s going to win every fucking time.”

  42. 42
    swanstep on 4 Feb 2014 #

    Like a lot of people here I was a huge fan of Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink but kind of lost the thread after that. The original version of PW, whose vid. I vaguely remember from the time, is pretty interesting even if not entirely pleasant. The remix, however, isn’t quite my thing, principally because of the drum track – it’s too washing-machine like for me (quite a lot of dance music falls at this hurdle as far as I’m concerned). By the six minute mark, I’m sick of feeling stuck in the laundry-room and hearing the same bass-loops and vocal grabs over and over. And then ‘Pretty Good Year’ comes on my iTunes, what a relief!

    Anyhow, amazing that this, I would have thought, fairly hard core club track got to #1. I mean this isn’t ‘Pump Up The Volume’ or ‘Tom’s Diner’ which were structured like pop records for all their novelty, really did break out to the mainstream, had great mainstream videos, etc.. The January low-sales period has tossed up some memorable oddities before, but the new precision marketing and general chart fragmentation of the time is raising extraordinary possibilities: maybe Ornette Coleman can get a one week #1 in January soon? Hard to grade – want to give props to Tori A. for making an appearance here, so:
    5 or 6 (depending on mood)

  43. 43
    swanstep on 4 Feb 2014 #

    @ed, 41. Thanks for that link – amazing!

  44. 44
    Tom on 4 Feb 2014 #

    #42 as is often the case with dance #1s, the radio edit is the thing that puts it into pop context – or the nearest thing you’re going to get to pop context, in the case of this record.

  45. 45
    flahr on 4 Feb 2014 #

    Dance dance dance (but I guess with a Pig instead of a Sheep Man?) [6]

    I utterly love her “Ring My Bell” cover.

  46. 46
    Rory on 5 Feb 2014 #

    Another track I was unsure if I knew before I YouTubed it the other day, but once again did; I imagine it got a fair amount of play on Australia’s JJJ at the time. “Hey Jupiter/Professional Widow” with the same Van Helden mix (radio edit) spent 29 weeks in our charts in 1996 and peaked at number 17; I’m not sure if it got re-released in its own right, but given that long run I’m guessing not.

    It’s certainly a cut above the run-of-the-mill. I picked up Van Helden’s Killing Puritans a few years later and listened to it for a while, but it hasn’t been one for the ages. (I see that “Koochy” reached number 4 in the UK. Did people here know what the title meant? Was there any harrumphing in the press?) Van Helden’s greatest Popular moment is still a fair way off for me; I think I’ll be conservative here and give this a 6.

  47. 47
    Weej on 6 Feb 2014 #

    Taken me a while to get round to re-listening to this, genuinely surprised at how much I like it – afraid I found it flimsy and forgettable at the time, which seems bizarre now. Hearing the original for the first time, I was surprised at how much of the spirit of the song remained despite it being sonically worlds apart, so will try to check out some more Tori.

    Lex @38 – “Rule number one, any music journalist disdainful of obsessive fans is not to be trusted” – this is really spot on.

  48. 48
    Steve Mannion on 6 Feb 2014 #

    Don’t most music writers become so having been (or still being) fanatical about certain kinds of music (or at least specific artists)?

    Disdain of obsessive fans is more based on what or who the obsession is for surely – and the perceived hierarchy of what to idolise and why.

  49. 49
    Weej on 6 Feb 2014 #

    That’s part of the point, yes, and while we might debate the existence of such a hierarchy, you have to admit that the concept leads more often to ad-hominem attacks on fans of a group / artist than as a bridge to understanding, empathising, a gateway to the music, etc.

    There are also a few writers out there who seem to take as an axiom that music = just entertainment and people taking it seriously = losers. Not sure what they are doing writing about music but they are certainly out there.

    Of course points one and two can intersect if people write about singers / bands / genres they don’t consider art.

  50. 50
    Auntie Beryl on 7 Feb 2014 #

    I’m going to take the opportunity to give “Eugina” by Salt Tank its second Popular mention, not only because I like the idea of singles that peaked at number 40 bring prized, but also as it predates PW in incorporating snippets of Tori Amos vocals into convincingly seamless enjoyable electronic music.

  51. 51
    Steve Mannion on 7 Feb 2014 #

    Good call Beryl, I never realised that was a TA sample on ‘Eugina’ – did they pitch her voice down? It actually sounds a bit more like Joan Osborne or even Stevie Nicks. Must listen to ‘Me & A Gun’ again.

  52. 52
    Cumbrian on 7 Feb 2014 #

    #2 Watch: Tori Amos and AVH kept Backstreet Boys’ “Quit Playing Games With My Heart” off the #1 slot.

    My progress with Tori Amos’ back catalogue continues. Have been listening to little else in fact* – I’m still sorting through how I feel about it. Not much of it grabbed me on first listen but the work is clearly dense with ideas and stuff going on, that subsequent listens have revealed more. I think I need to spend more time listening to this stuff to form coherent opinions – nevertheless, at this point, I think Under The Pink and From The Choirgirl Hotel are the ones that I am getting most from.

    *Not even the PWC entries, nor have I yet got to White Town (I don’t need to listen to Beetlebum to be able to comment on that really, as I probably know that record backwards by this point in my life).

  53. 53
    lonepilgrim on 2 Mar 2014 #

    this recording featured during the week just ended in OneWeekOneBand focusing on Tori’s work which can be found here: http://oneweekoneband.tumblr.com/tagged/tori_amos/chrono

  54. 54
    Gareth Parker on 22 May 2021 #

    Can’t quite take to this one I’m afraid. Some nice touches here and there, but I can’t go any higher than a 5/10.

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