Tori Amos wishes for a dozen of her best impressions on Strange Little Girls, a cover album that covers about as much of the singer’s split-psyche as it does her diverse musical influences. With the exception of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” (which is reminiscent of the simple piano/vocal arrangements of her early work), Amos avoids the obvious in favor of more obscure trifles close to her multifarious heart. Many of the album’s tracks are surprisingly faithful to their cradles (the Velvet Underground’s “New Age,” the Stranglers’s “Strange Little Girl”), but, alas, Amos stamps her covers with her own idiosyncratic brand of Tori. She tears into a rocked-out version of Neil Young’s twangy “Heart of Gold” like a banshie, blending layered wails with whining guitar licks; she reexamines what it means to be a “man” on Joe Jackson’s “Real Men,” bending her way through gender identity.
Amos’s masochistically minimalist rendition of 10CC’s oft-covered “I’m Not in Love” echoes the original’s sparse arrangement and manages to strip it of all sonic warmth. Her intentionally glacial delivery is virtually impenetrable, taking the song’s irony to frightening new levels of denial: “I keep your picture upon the wall/It hides a nasty stain still lying there.” Amos twists the song’s “big boys don’t cry” themes of male vulnerability and all but castrates what is the ultimate (and most unlikely) ode to love. Yet, strangely, it’s the iciness that makes her version all the more captivating; her detached vocal is both somniferous and heady.
Amos restructures the Beatles’ meter-shifting “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” into an epic historical lesson on America’s gun plague, told from the perspective of Mark David Chapman’s whore; she morphs Slayer’s frenetic “Raining Blood” into a decidedly female meditative dirge. Amos assumes the pose of sliced-and-trunked wife in the absolutely scathing “97 Bonnie & Clyde,” speaking to her daughter in what is probably the singer’s most emotive performance since “Me and a Gun.” The rendition is even more nauseating than Eminem’s original homicidal manifesto, supplanting Dr. Dre’s disjoined production with a dramatic score worthy of Psycho. She replaces the infamous white rapper’s smug tone with vengeful scorn: “There’s a place called heaven and a place called hell/A place called prison and a place called jail/And da-da’s probably on his way to all of ’em except one.”
Amos’s preoccupation with death and guns continues on a cover of the Boomtown Rats’s “I Don’t Like Mondays,” which she turns into a quietly violent lullaby: “The lesson today is how to die.” Like any good middle-aged woman, Amos is realizing her mortality right on schedule; she mourns the passing of time on Tom Waits’s aptly-titled “Time” (“Memory’s like a train/You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away”). But as Mr. Waits will attest, the moral of the story is not to wait in despair, but in love. Amos’s choices and interpretations are often more cryptic than her original work, but the melody is there, the structure (often more abstract in her recent work) is apparent. Strange Little Girls could assuage her critics and, even this late in her career, break her to an even larger audience. Transposing her post-partum crisis into someone else’s world seems perfectly out-of-place and right on time.