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