TORI AMOS Boys For Pele (East West)

Somehow I’ve managed to miss out on hearing any of Tori Amos’ albums, and this, her third, suggests that to be a foolish oversight: "Boys For Pele" is frankly incredible, easily one of my ten favourite albums of 1996. But why? Expecting a dippy Kate Bush clone, Amos’ muse seems to be more aligned towards John Cale weirdness and Michael Nyman keyboard abuse (especially on the harpsichord-driven tracks), with shades of Suzanne Vega (inevitably) Kristin Hersh and Patti Smith. The lyrics might verge on the mysterious (or, being less charitable, impenetrable), but for the most part they work perfectly, enhancing the album’s sense of brooding otherworldliness. (Although I find it hard to defend/interpret lines like "Hello Mr Zebra/Have you got a sweater?"). Best bits include the opener "Beauty Queen/Horses", the wonderful "Father Lucifer", with its drawing room Bösendorfer, brass and bass guitar accompaniment, the thumptastic single "Caught A Lite Sneeze", and "Putting The Damage On", which sounds like the Black Dyke Mills Band playing Eno while Tori whispers. If there’s a complaint, it’s the usual one of length over content (do albums really need to be 70 minutes long?). That petty moan aside, "Boys For Pele" is a work of genius, and should be heard.

TORI AMOS From The Choirgirl Hotel (East West/Atlantic)

Tori Amos’ fourth album, subtitled "Dispatches and Polaroids 1963-1998", sees her move, via marriage, miscarriage and Armand Van Helden remixes, even further from the ethereal Kate Bush female singer-songwriter stereotype with which she might once have been tarred. (No disrespect intended of course, it’s just that the world ain’t really big enough for more than one Kate Bush). "From The Choirgirl Hotel" furthers the musical widening (wierding?) process started on the 1996 double album "Boys For Pele", whilst simultaneously reigning in and repackaging all that ambition into twelve neat four-minute chunks.

What this all means is that when "From The Choirgirl Hotel" is good, it’s very very good. Take "Cruel", which is all languorous, uncoiling melody (it reminds me of the anecdote in Beatles folklore where George Martin attempted to get the young John Lennon interested in classical music via, I think, Debussy’s "Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune"; Lennon complained that he couldn’t get into it because the melody lines were too long. Tori plays the same trick here, except without the complaints) and thumptastic drum programming that pre-empts any handbag house merchant’s attempts to remix it for fun and/or profit.

Elsewhere "Black-Dove (January)" is all musical-box-fragile Bösendorfer loops, "Jackie’s Strength" a bizarre tale of wedding day disaster that namechecks David Cassidy, "Playboy Mommy" seems to revisit the same Courtney-baiting lyrical territory as "Professional Widow" and "Northern Lad" sounds like Kate Bush covering Nick Cave’s "The Boatman’s Call" album.

The remainder of "From The Choirgirl Hotel" is, sad to say, a little humdrum by comparison, not helped much by a compressed pressing that saps dynamics from songs that would benefit from a touch of dramatics. (I think it’s since been reissued as a double album, a Good Thing). And compared to the career sea-change that was "Boys For Pele" and the "Professional Widow" remix that followed, it’s a wee bit of an anticlimax. Nevertheless, "From The Choirgirl Hotel" is an interesting, frequently stunning release. And by way of comparison, Tori Amos has produced three albums since Ms Bush last deigned to grace us with some new material. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

TORI AMOS To Venus And Back (Atlantic)

In which Tori Amos quickly follows up 1998's rather fine "From The Choirgirl Hotel" with a half-studio/half-live double album, which hasn't been seen around here since the loon-panted likes of "Ummagumma" and "Wheels Of Fire". Unfortunately "To Venus And Back" has nowhere near the excess of invention and inspiration demonstrated by the aforementioned (and even by Amos herself on the wonderful "Boys For Pele" album): mostly it's a very, very dull way to spend two hours, packed with all the action and excitement of watching paint dry or hills erode. The new material is mostly unmemorable and inconsequential, the expected kooky lyrics notwithstanding. There are a smattering of welcome exceptions, for example the electro Smashing Pumpkins doom and gloom of the single "Glory Of The 80s", "Spring Haze" could be mistaken for a "Pele" outtake both musically and lyrically, which makes it very interesting indeed, and "1000 Oceans" is possibly one of the most beautiful and moving songs she's ever written, and justifies purchase of this whole flabby mess on its own. But otherwise it's not exactly a thrill a minute.

Your reaction to the live CD is inextricably bound to how you feel about the "Little Earthquakes" and "Under The Pink" albums, from which the material is predominately drawn. I've always been baffled by the praise heaped upon them, but then again I heard them after being mesmerised by the spiralling, free-form maverick madness of "Boys For Pele" (represented here only by the throwaway "Mr. Zebra"), and found them comparatively one-dimensional and straight-laced. If you love them, though, you'll probably love this.

A puzzling release, then: it's not as if the world was desperate for another Tori Amos album, as this appears a sprightly 18 months after her last long-player. Sadly, for most of its oppressively long running time, "To Venus And Back" remains naggingly earthbound.

TORI AMOS The Beekeeper (Epic)

Sumptuous and elaborate Ms Amos’ latest long player may be, but at 80 minutes it’s also a wearying experience, especially when so many of its 19 tracks are so close to forgettable. There’s none of the jagged emotional incisiveness that characterised “Boys For Pele”, or the crisp commercial nous of “From The Choirgirl Hotel”. It’s clear that much artistic effort has been expended here: the booklet draws the songs together into six non-consecutive horticultural groups, including “Elixirs And Herbs” and “The Greenhouse”, suggesting conceptual thinking at work. It’s a shame to report that the result is little more than highbrow muzak – I’m all for extending the remit of the popular song, but really, there’s something about the references to embroidery and Tori’s own Saab that suggest a bridge has been crossed.

The convoluted melody that writhes deep beneath the opulently upholstered surface of “Barons Of Suburbia” doesn’t necessarily make it any more interesting, In this company “Cars And Guitars” stands out for both its reggae lilt and the brow-furrowing, nagging sense of déjà vu that eventually resolves itself into notes stolen from Cat Stevens’ “Father And Son” (or, for younger readers, The Flaming Lips’ “Fight Test”). The tumbling breaks that punctuate “Witness” offer a safe haven from the uncharacteristic AOR swagger modelled by the rest of the song. Possibly the album’s nadir, “Ireland” swings between crushing banality and impenetrable encoding. At least it renders the following title track’s claustrophobic and unsettling electronic unease more welcome than it might otherwise have been, especially its tactile, textured bursts of Robert Fripp/Mike Oldfield-style guitar. The intro to “Hoochie Woman” sets the listener up for a smouldering, spitting, Nina Simone-esque tale of a woman spurned, an expectation that Tori’s glacial vocals chill considerably. The long-awaited closer, “Toast”, is arguably one of the finer moments here; with its naked idiosyncrasy and gentle acoustic guitar and piano soundtrack it could almost be a “Boys For Pele” outtake.

Hard work to little avail, “The Beekeeper” is a disappointment, although to be fair no more so than, for example, “To Venus And Back”, the last Tori album I bothered buying. (And even at its considerable length, it’s still shorter than that double disc studio/live, er, opus.) Still, hopefully the imminent new Kate Bush album will guide us safely home again.