Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

This is the best version of “Cornflake Girl,” including Tori Amos’ original

Jawbox

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Some of our all-time favorite covers.

Jawbox, “Cornflake Girl” (1996)

I really tried to become a Tori Amos fan, honestly.

I’m not sure if it was “God,” the leadoff single from her second album Under The Pink, or perhaps “Caught A Lite Sneeze,” from the rambling and adventurous Boys For Pele, that first caught my attention. But at some point in the mid-’90s, I decided the oddball American pianist and singer was a fascinating artist, and set myself to the task of diving into her catalogue. And it was a rewarding process: Amos is a sharp and interesting songwriter, with an ear for poppy hooks and catchy melodies that belies her reputation as a “challenging” musician and performer. But she has enough classical training to be bored by simple chord changes, which lends a layer of depth and musicality to even her more accessible work, especially once you start getting into her post-Pele discography.

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But something about her arrangements, the traditional instrumentation, and general adult-contemporary vibe of even her more out-there stuff, held me back. It’s not a lack of chops; I would often sit at the piano, trying to replicate sounds and riffs I thought were particularly inspired. Unfortunately, I kept wanting the songs to be more than they were—louder, fiercer, more evocative of the strong personality I sensed roiling about in the lyrics and vocal performances. Basically, at some point I realized I wanted Tori Amos to be fronting a rock band. (But not like her previous group, Y Kant Tori Read, let me stress, because before she completely revamped her sound for a solo career, her pop songs were not good, to put it mildly.) I wanted to see what would happen if she tried to work her compositions into a more stereotypical rock lineup: guitar, guitar, bass, drums… maybe a keyboard, if she really insisted upon it. Her music was less surprising when kept in the traditional, smooth arrangements. I wanted to hear it in a setup that would lend a different kind of immediacy to the compositions.

Which is how I came upon Jawbox, a band that I maintain writes songs that sound like Amos was involved in the songwriting process. But whereas Jawbox went even farther than Amos did in terms of challenging traditional rock-music conventions, the band shared her affinity for soaring and addictive melodies that straddled the line into pop. I didn’t realize any of this, of course, until I had been introduced to the group via their cover of Amos’ “Cornflake Girl.” The original version of the song is quite good; Jawbox’s version is great. For starters, they add a little stutter-step rhythm missing from the smoother arrangement favored by Amos. The churning, swirling maelstrom of guitars maintains a clear lead melody, despite a wall-of-sound backdrop that would make Billy Corgan jealous. And best of all, it kicks with the force of a hundred pianos, lending musical weight to the strong identity I always heard behind those elliptical lyrics. Here, at long last, was the Tori Amos I heard in my head when I listened to her music. We did a Walkthrough with Jawbox frontman J. Robbins a few weeks ago, where he admitted it had started as a goof. How would he and guitarist Bill Barbot feel about arranging and performing the rest of Under The Pink? I can pay in appreciation.

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