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Despite having grown up around a fair amount of Led Zeppelin (thanks to my sister), I first became acquainted with “When the Levee Breaks” while watching the amazing film, “Argo.” I’m not going to lie — I haven’t looked at the lyrics, which is a rarity for me, considering how much I value poetry. But thinking of the levee breaking as a metaphor, I suppose it’s describing the point where all control goes out the window. And the groove? Yeah, it doesn’t get any better than that. And Tori has covered it. I believe there’s a quote somewhere where Tori described Robert Plant as “the Goddess.” Goddess with a capital “G.” I found it: “Something really clicked in me when I discovered Led Zeppelin. And you have to understand what that did for me because first of all, oh my God, besides the guitar playing, which was you know, I *wanted* to be Jimmy Page. That’s what I really wanted to be. But I wanted to *be with* Robert Plant. Just the way he’d move his body and the sensuality. I mean, I just knew I had found the Goddess, that was it.”

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Thanks to my sister’s amazingly eclectic and wonderful musical tastes, I listened to the Sugarcubes in middle school; so, naturally I bought Bjork’s first couple solo records. For whatever reasons, they never really grabbed me, as much as I had loved the Sugarcubes. Maybe for the same reasons Kate Bush didn’t grab me until I was 24; too “out there”? Not really sure, but whenever one truly discovers particular artists, it’s almost always worth the wait.

For many years, I’ve been a bit contemptuous of Bjork and her fans, because as a member of the musician community, it’s seemed very trendy and cool to love Bjork. See: http://www.bjorkestra.com/, formed by a former grad-school-classmate of my husband’s. And I guess it’s in my nature to be suspicious of trendiness, but that’s my own issue.

In an attempt to get some new music going in my headphones, I pulled out a couple of my husband’s Bjork records, and I was pretty much immediately blown away. The creativity, the sounds, the lyrics, the textures and imagination. Bjork has been written and talked about ad nauseam, so I’ll just say that I think she’s an amazing role model for people in general, but especially for young women in the age of Miley Cyrus. Listen to Bjork’s music, experience her live performances – she is totally worth it.

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This month Natasha Khan (AKA Bat for Lashes) has given us another beautiful record, entitled “the Haunted Man.”  And I can say with certainty that I am pretty much in love with her and her music.  For many reasons.  The music is nothing short of stunning: emotional, visceral, atmospheric, imaginative, feminine, often danceable, it harkens back to elements of 80s New Wave music, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, the Cure, and Kate Bush…but Natasha Khan really has her own sound, despite these influences.  But she definitely comes from a tradition of theatrical British musicians.  I may lose people here, but her music makes me think of chilly towns in Belgium or France in autumn with grey skies and frost on the ground.  (Around the time I discovered her music for the first time in 2009, I happened to see “In Bruges” in a hotel in Mexico City, and I was totally fascinated from that point on…with Bruges and with Bat for Lashes).

I think as human beings, we are always looking for role models — regardless of our age.  For many, many years, Tori Amos was a role model for me — through my teenage years, through my twenties.  And much of her message and music, particularly from the 90s and early 2000s, continues to be a tremendous source of inspiration, personally and musically.  But what Tori has done in recent years seems to be steeped in glitzy appearances, crazy haute couture clothes, plastic surgery, far-fetched supposedly “feminist” themes, and often over-produced sounding music.  I mean, she pretty much lost me and so many of her fans the second she used the term “MILF” in a song.  I shudder.  That hardly seems like a feminist term.  (I still love Tori, btw).

But Natasha Khan is something different, and I think frankly, something/someone more like me and my best friends…and certainly more like someone I aspire to be.  There is a naturalness to her, a lack of pretentiousness, despite her rather dramatic music.  Take the cover of her new record, for example.  She is totally naked, with an equally naked man draped over her shoulders; she is carrying him.  She said of the shot, “”I think it freaks people out because I’ve got no makeup on, there’s no retouching. It’s super-raw and wild and black and white. But that’s what Patti Smith did, that’s what PJ Harvey did, that’s what all the coolest people have done, from my icons anyway.”  Writer Caitlin White (spinner.com) states, “…a sexualized female body has become a banality that doesn’t even cause a blip — but a completely natural, make-up free woman literally supporting a man leads to endless speculation.”

I’ve always thought that some of Bat for Lashes’s music reminded me of Kate Bush, and to be totally honest, this new record has lots of Kate influence.  The vocals, the electronics, the danceable beats, the layering of textures and samples.  The song “Lilies” (see link below) off the new record sounds uncannily like KB, particularly the vocal style.  But I feel like just about every female artist I listen to (Tori, Joanna Newsom, Bat for Lashes, Austra, etc.) gets compared to KB, which of course, is a huge compliment to KB and certainly a tribute to how unbelievably influential and revolutionary she was/is.  BUT it does get to be a bit of an old cliche.  Natasha Khan says, “”I think it’s really interesting, the way that you get kind of pulled into this group of female musicians no matter how disparate and eclectic you are, just because you are a woman. I don’t see male musicians coming out … imagine if all the male musicians coming out all got grouped into one group? It’s just like, really weird to me.”  She has specifically cited Robert Smith (yay!) as a huge influence on this new record.  And maybe I’m off base here, but I hear some Michael Jackson from the “Thriller” era.

Lastly, BFL has a beautiful, other-wordly quality, which is probably also one of the reasons she’s been compared to Kate Bush.  There is a mythological figure sort of aesthetic quality to the music, and the wardrobe…though this new era doesn’t have quite the Kate Bush winged-creature costume element that Natasha tended to exhibit back in 2009.  In any case, all of it is beautiful, in my opinion.

Oh, and she sounds AMAZING and IN TUNE live.  I also want to raid her wardrobe.

I LOVE the piano sample in this live track at 2:13

As corny as this may sound, I love when she takes her robe/cape off at the end of this one!…

Maybe the most beautiful track on the record.  Magnificent:

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Once in a long while, I come across some incredibly astute and thought-provoking comment about Tori’s music via an online forum or youtube page. (Hence, I cannot claim originality with the Barber connection here). Anyway, I was watching a rather old video of a performance of “Upside Down,” a b-side from the Little Earthquakes era in the early 90s. And to my pleasant surprise, someone was comparing it to Samuel Barber’s “Excursions No. 1.” I know probably as much about Barber as the next average professional string player — not a particularly enormous amount, but certainly enough to be intrigued by this comment. So I went and had a listen. Sure enough, there are similarities, at least with the opening motif. My excitement stemmed from the fact that I’ve always felt that much of Tori’s music possesses the same haunting modalities found in composers I really, really love: Bartok, Chopin, Debussy…and Barber too apparently.  Tori was classically trained, having started at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore when she was 5, so perhaps it’s no surprise that classical elements are found all over her music, especially her output from the 90s.  “Upside Down” sounds undoubtedly more simplistic and a bit adolescent (I can say that since I’ve been listening to her since I was 14) compared to the Barber.  But songs like “Peeping Tommi” (also from the same era) are a bit richer musically, and also echo such pieces as Debussy’s “Cathedral Engloutie” (the Sunken Cathedral) and Bartok’s “Roumanian Folk Dances.” I’m not really interested in theoretical analyses of these pieces (sorry, said analysis is just boring as hell, in my opinion, and I’ve had way too many colleagues say to me over the years, “hey, listen to that augmented 6 chord” ugh!), but sonically and emotionally, I feel they come from the same source. When I first discovered Tori (circa 1994), I had been studying piano quite seriously for many years. And one of things I gravitated to in her music, particularly that of “Under the Pink,” was that it reminded me of Chopin Waltzes and Nocturnes. The waltz-y sections of “Yes, Anastasia”, for example, were basically a cooler, edgier, more contemporary version of Chopin.  And all of these other comparisons are really fodder for greater, richer listening experiences.  So listen on!  😉

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There aren’t too many Joni Mitchell covers I really love — even Tori’s “A Case of You” (or KD Lang’s, for that matter) doesn’t quite cut it for me.  But I really love Austra’s version of “Woodstock.”  Joni’s music is pretty untouchable — it’s on a plane higher, more evolved musically and lyrically than most people can hope for either from themselves as musicians or as listeners.  But somehow the level of emotion and awe and earnestness in Austra’s cover is totally right-on.  So different from the original, yet totally capturing the essence of what the song is all about — hope, revolution, peace, transformation, epiphany of and through a new way of looking at life.  Katie Stelmanis of Austra and Joni are both Canadians, for what it’s worth.

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Unfortunately, I can’t stand WNYC’s John Schaefer, BUT to his credit, he has introduced me to a small handful of incredibly awesome bands, including this one, Austra.  Austra is lead by Canadian singer/pianist/musician, Katie Stelmanis.  The group is sort of 80s New Wave meets 2012.  I could cite a band or two that I think fall into a vaguely similar category, but I’m trying not to do that these days, because I feel like it pigeon-holes bands.  The music I love is generally one or both of the following: extremely emotionally charged (think: Tori Amos, Nine Inch Nails, the Cure) or other-wordly (think: Kate Bush, David Bowie, Stevie Nicks, Florence +the Machine), and I think Austra falls somewhere in the middle of these two.  Visually, they’re a bit eccentric (I mean, what is with those pretty twins dancing on the sidelines anyway???), but the whole presentation enhances their uniqueness.  The girl drummer with the deadpan look and the glasses?  Awesomeness.  The music is atmospheric, moody, usually thick in texture, and just beautiful all around.  Oh, and danceable.  🙂  A friend or two has tried to introduce me to some current bands that are popular these days with people with tastes similar to mine: Interpol and Band of Horses, for example.  BOR-ING.  Austra is NOT boring.  Their sounds make for great running music, and they remind me what music can be — powerful, emotional, visceral, imaginative.  Austra is great.  Check them out.  “Darken Her Horse,” by the way, starts very slowly — almost like a religious chant for the two minutes or so — and then it kicks into full New Wave glory!  Enjoy.

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Robert Smith and Tori are pretty much my favorite musicians ever.  I listened to them through the nineties, through college, through graduate school, through my twenties, and I still do.  I live a life surrounded by a great many “tee-tas” (snooty classical musicians who like to sing music to friends and colleagues using “tees” and “tas”) so these days I find even greater solace in the music that speaks closest and dearest to my heart.

This is one of Tori’s most beautiful covers.  So different from the Cure’s original version, yet capturing, I think, the true essence of what the song is all about.  It’s one of the world’s greatest love songs.  And both Robert and Tori’s ability to convey melancholic, earnest, profound feeling never fails.

Gotta admire Robert’s iconic high tops…and lipstick:

Beautiful Tori photo show, to boot:

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I don’t know why I couldn’t combine this post with the one below it, but I couldn’t figure it out…Alas…

My comfort song…See below…

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Circa 1982 (Pornography era)

Back in 2000/2001-ish I was asked to play for a band called Asciento, based in Boston/Somerville, MA, because they wanted to cover the Cure’s “Pornography” in its entirety, and specifically for the song, “Cold,” they wanted cello.  Being a long-time (and no doubt obsessive) Cure fan, and a huge fan of black leather clothing and dark make-up, I, without hesitation, said “yes.”  And I’m really glad I did, because it led to many musical revelations & interesting relationships from which I learned a great deal.

In middle and high school, I was a huge fan of “Disintegration,” “Kiss me, Kiss me, Kiss me,” “the Head on the Door,” and “Standing on a Beach: the Singles,” plus some others.  Some of the older stuff, like “Pornography,” was a bit too…well, I don’t know…it wasn’t quite accessible enough to my teenage ears.  A bit too dark maybe (hard to believe since I love all things dark, but really….this record is going into the depths of the darkest dark), a bit too repetitive in a minimalist New-Wavey kind of way…a bit too obscure with the lyrics, at least for my brain at the time…but through that performance in 2000/2001 and through just maturing as a musician and an avid listener, well, I just love this record.  Some of the songs have a similar rhythmic/tempo feel, so it almost feels like the songs run together a bit.  But I think that’s part of what makes it interesting.  I find it sensitive, angsty, depressing, torturous, moving, and fraught with the deepest feeling.  And it’s honest.  Robert Smith has always been tremendously honest, I think.  He’s not trying to be anyone but himself, he’s not trying to be trendy or to fit in with anyone or anything…he doesn’t really sound like anyone but himself.  The Cure sounds like the Cure.  No question about it.  And I think this record is unbelievably unique.  “Siamese Twins” is probably the most depressing song I’ve ever heard…but man, what a beautiful song.  The record kind of grooves on itself; it’s not over-done, there’s not a whole lot going on except for dense sound & grooves.  Robert Smith is heartfelt as ever, in the most honest way.  I think this record is a masterpiece.

What an opener (omg, holy 80s)”

Almost danceable…”Short Term Effect”

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In light of the recent (and horrifying) image of Tori Amos for her upcoming record, “Night of Hunters,” I decided to go back to music that gives me hope, personally and artistically.  I love to write about Tori, but rather than doing just that, I’m going to post my favorite live performances from each era.  Tori reminds me what it is to be a musician and why I chose to go that path with my life.  Enjoy!  🙂

Little Earthquakes Era – 1991/1992: “Here in my Head,” a b-side (Best moment: 3 minutes, 10 seconds basically to the end).  Painfully heartfelt, honest, angst-ridden in the most beautiful way…Best line/verse (I think):

maybe i’m just the horizon you run to
when she has left
you and me here
alone on the floor
you’re counting my feathers
as the bells toll
you see the bow and the belt
and the girl from the south
all favorites of mine
you know them all well
and spring brings fresh little puddles
that makes it all clear
makes it all…
hey, do you know
hey, do you know
what this is doing to me?
oh, here…
here…
here. in my head

Under the Pink era: “Bells for Her” 1994  — sensitive, dark, moody, sad, earnest.  You kind of have to be a major fan to sit through the entire performance, but man, what an introspective ride.  This song reminds me of very lonely winters.   Best line/verse: bells and footfalls and soldiers and dolls
brothers and lovers she and i were
now she seems to be sand under his shoes
there’s nothing i can do
can’t stop what’s coming
can’t stop what’s on its way

Boys for Pele (I’m allowed 2 since this is my favorite record of all-time).  1) Marianne 2) Horses/Fool on the Hill

Best line/verse from either: tuna
rubber
a little blubber in my igloo
and i knew you pigtails and all
girl when they fall
and they say marianne killed herself
and i said not a chance
don’t you love the girls ladies babies
old bags who say she was so pretty why
why why why did she crawl down in the old
deep ravine

From the Choirgirl Hotel: Such an AWESOME record.  I’m choosing her performance of “Cruel” at Madison Square Garden in 1998.  Best line:  dance with the sufi’s celebrate your top ten in the charts of pain
lover brother bogenvilla my vine twists around your need
even the rain is sharp like today as you sh-sh-shock me sane
no cigarettes only peeled HAVANA’S for you i can be cruel

To Venus and Back: Such a special record.  I choose a live performance of “Concertina”.  Best line/verse: the soul-quake
happened here in a glass world
particle by particle
she slowly changes
she likes hanging chinese paper cuts
just another fix
can i weather this

i got my fuzz all tipped to play
i got a dub on your landscape
then there’s your policy of tracing
the sauce without the blame

Strange Little Girls – 2001 – terribly unique covers album.  I choose “Real Men,” written by Joe Jackson.  Best line/verse: what’s a man now
what’s a man mean
is he rough or is he rugged
cultural and clean
now it’s all changed
it’s got to change more
we think it’s getting better
but nobody’s really sure

Scarlet’s Walk – 2002: Such a beautiful masterpiece of a record.  I choose her live version of “Virginia.”  Best line/verse:  he will
change from her
sunwise to clockwise
to soul trading
still she’ll lay
down her Body
covering him all
the same
oh Virginia
do you remember
when the Land held
your hand
oh Virginia

The Beekeeper – 2005 – I fell in love with my husband right around when this record came out, so it’s hard for me NOT to love it.  Still, it shows a departure from the bad ass, angsty, emotional Tori we saw previously. Nonetheless, I think her live shows were incredible.  I choose “Song of Soloman,” which was basically an improv she did for a Viktor & Rolf fashion show.  Parts of it are in her tune, “Take me with You.”  this is pretty magical.  Just watch the whole clip if you can, so you wait for the models to come out.  They do so at 2:15.

American Doll Posse: I don’t have much to say here, but she blew me away at the live show in 2007 for this record.  I choose “Beauty of Speed.”  She is pretty mesmerizing in this.

Abnormally Attracted to Sin: 2009 – Strong Black Vine, live, because she does a “Tori rant” reminiscent of her rants from 1998-ish.  Interesting record, but not much to say.  Still, this live clip is pretty awesome.  I happened to be reading “the Story of O” when this record came out, and well…it proved to be a pretty amazing soundtrack.  😉  She’s pretty insane in this vid, but if you’re a Tori fan…well, I guess we get it.

I have to end on a better note, however.  So this is my favorite live performance of a b-side (other than “Here in My Head.”)  I choose “Butterfly” from the Under the Pink era.  “Butterfly” is in my top 5 favorite Tori songs of all time.  Favorite line/verse:

stinky soul get a little lost in my own
hey general, need a little love in that hole of yours
one ways, now, and saturdays and our kittens
all wrapped in cement
from cradle to gumdrops
got me running girl as fast as i can
and is it right, butterfly,
they like you better framed and dried

Tori Amos, Choirgirl era, circa 1998

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