Tori Amos Night of Hunters(Deutsche Grammophon) Buy it from Insound
Little good can come from the combination of the words 'pop' and 'classical'. Whether delivered in the form of compilations based around choice cuts from TV adverts (pity poor Carmina Burina and Nessun Dorma, long divorced from their original context and meaning and forced to act as shorthands for 'drama' or 'passion') or collections of syrupy takes on the old standards by wholesomely attractive young things, the popular classic album is a very dire thing indeed. (It's not that 'classical' music should be inaccessible as such, but when the term's been stretched to cover pretty much all music before the 1950s, and a fair amount afterwards, truthfully you're not going to get much out of it if you don't put a bit of effort in.)
Perhaps the least rewarding take on the idea is when established pop stars, now getting on a bit, decide to have a bit of a dabble in the field. After all if even Paul McCartney, a man who practically churned out modern classics in his youth, comes undone when turning his hand to symphonies or ballet what hope do lesser musicians have? And yet they still keep coming; after inflicting three albums of Sting at his most pompous at us, classical label Deutsche Grammophon have now encouraged kooky singer-songwriter Tori Amos to give it a go.
However, in a twist quite fitting for a skew-whiff career (one that's taken her from contemporary to PJ Harvey and Björk - according to Q magazine at least - to largely dismissed MOR mainstay, via one of the most barking mad UK number ones of the 90s), in Night of Hunters she's actually done the impossible and crafted something really quite compelling. Could it be because of Amos' classical training, or her being surrounded with accomplished musicians in their own right – namely string quartet Apollon Musagète and Andreas Ottensamer, the principal clarinetist for the Berlin Philharmonic (whose delicate and energetic playing lifts even some of the more leaden material)? Maybe... or maybe not – such qualities haven't stopped other pop classical albums from stinking to high heaven - perhaps it's because of the fact that while the genre often avoids genuine emotion for fear of making things a bit too unpalatable, that's one quality that Amos' music (for better or worse) has never lacked.
Taking work from several composers, some well known (for example, Satie's Gnossienne no. 1) some not so much (Charles-Valentin Alkan, a nineteenth century French composer long out of favour) and twisting it into variations to suit her own ends, Night of Hunters is arranged as a song cycle, based around a woman's encounter with figures from Irish folklore following the break-up of a relationship. As you might expect the narrative is, as the Irish would (probably not) say, a load of fecking bollocks, but as problems go, that's hardly an insurmountable one - even the most ardent classical fans will admit that the stories are rarely all that. Besides, as Amos' past lyrics could be divided neatly between the categories 'awkward confessional 'and 'away with the fairies', it's something of a relief that she's gone for the lighter option here. Night of Hunters is a long album, and would have been unbearable if it had been filled with tracks like Me and a Gun, or From the Choirgirl Hotel's miscarriage-inflected darker moments.
That's not to say that it isn't devoid of drama; things get off to a violent start as Amos intones 'This is not my blood on the bedroom floor' while she gives her piano a good battering and Apollon Musagète frantically saw away at their instruments, but from thereon out things calm down considerably. During second track Snowblind, Amos' protagonist encounters Annabelle, the shape-shifting spirit of 'duality', (performed by Amos' eleven year old daughter) and through some bouts of star-gazing, time travel and peyote imbibing (you'd be right to point out that there's not really much of that going on in Ireland, but by this point point in the narrative, apparently, the woman and Annabelle have found time to cross the Atlantic as well, not that you'd know if you weren't listening closely enough), finds herself the following morning with a little wiser with a new sense of gratitude and perspective; basically, it's the opposite of the morning-after a bad break-up experiences that any of us have had. And that pretty much covers it. While the story ultimately doesn't really matter as long as the music's good, it is a little disappointing that it's quite so insubstantial (to be charitable, it could be described as more 'conceptual' than 'eventful') but then it comes as no surprise as Amos always been an artist prone to Earth-motherisms.
The reason Night of Hunters does, for the most part, work is that Amos has clearly put a lot of effort into selecting her source material to create a consistent mood (perhaps a little bit too consistent, the emotional shift throughout the hour and a quarter running time being rather subtle) and while her approaches to it varies from track to track – some are very faithful renderings, others bear very little resemblance (Seven Sisters, for example, sounds very little like Bach's Prelude in C Minor) – she is never less than respectful of it. Although, at the risk of undermining an already flimsy argument, a key part of Night of Hunters appeal lies in the fact that it doesn't sound much like a straight-up classical record, with the influence of other genres (albeit mostly pop) making their presence felt. Most strikingly, Job's Coffin has an old-fashioned, hymnal feel while Edge of the Moon gradually morphs from the Siciliano from Bach's Flute Sonata into the sophisticated pop that Amos made her name with. And while, her voice has, as ever, a very bright radio-friendly quality (she finally does on Fearlessness what she's been threatening to do for years and go full-Kate Bush), her daughter's very-obviously stage-school ingrained, although still very pleasant, Winehouse-in-miniature tones also give things bit of a 'jazzy' sheen.
Perhaps Night of Hunters goes on a bit too long for its own good (much like this review). Battle of Trees, the aforementioned take on Satie, is intriguing, dark and mysterious, but as it's both quite muted and nine minutes long, plenty will lose patience with it before its time is up, and there are plenty more moments where Amos could be accused of stalling for time. By about the fifth time that mother and daughter have sung the word 'cactus' at each other on Cactus Practice, less patient listeners will probably be wanting to knock the two's heads together; and yet again there's also something quite brilliant going on at the same time, specifically the way that their vocals weave their way around each other (a mere detail handled so impressively that it suggests great things for Amos' musical version of The Light Princess at London's National Theatre next year).
For all its faults, give Night of Hunters more than a little patience, and perhaps don't pay too close attention to the plot, and it reveals itself to be Amos' most consistent, interesting album since her mid-90s heyday. But the question now is where does she go from here? It's probably a given that her next album with Deutsche Grammophon will be The Light Princess soundtrack, but after that? One time is probably enough for this sort of idea. Whatever she does, hopefully she won't follow in Sting's footsteps and trot out her old hits with an orchestral accompaniment, or start boring everyone with her love of lutes.4 October, 2011 - 06:35 — Mark Davison