2011 has been a troubling year for America and the West, but a good year for rock n’ roll and popular music, especially for older women artists.
Marianne Faithfull released the critically-acclaimed ‘Horses and High Heels,’ her 18th studio album, and traveled throughout the United States and Europe supporting it; Stevie Nicks released her seventh solo album, ‘In Your Dreams,’ an album which, with 2001’s ‘Trouble in Shangri-La,’ creatively revived her failing career against all odds after her 80s and 90s downturn; Blondie released their low-key and rather unadventurous ninth album, ‘Panic of Girls,’ and Kate Bush released an album of reworked songs, ‘Director’s Cut,’ and will be releasing ’50 Words For Snow,’ her first recording of new material in six years, later this year.
In the midst of this activity comes ‘Night of Hunters,’ Tori Amos’s 12th album of new material since 1992’s ‘Little Earthquakes.’ Commissioned by the prestigious German record label Deutsche Grammophon and described as “a 21st century song cycle inspired by classical music themes spanning over 400 years,” the album features eleven tracks based on the compositions of Bach, Schubert, Chopin, Debussy, Mendelssohn, Mussorgsky, and others.
About the time of Amos’s excellent second album, ‘Under the Pink’ (1994), her fans seemed to diverge into two camps: those who fairly embraced almost anything Amos released, and those who preferred what might be referred to as the ‘woman at her piano’ compositions such as ‘Winter,’ ‘Baker, Baker,’ ‘Yes, Anastasia,’ ‘Cooling,’ ‘Lust,’ ‘Josephine,’ and, later, ‘Indian Summer,’ ‘Apollo’s Frock,’ ‘Garlands,’ and ‘Snow Angel.’
The good news for both groups, especially the latter, is that ‘Night of Hunters’ features no percussion, has been recorded with string quartet Apollon Musagète and arranger John Philip Shenale, and very much revolves around Amos at her piano, which is quite suitable, since Amos began her music instruction at a very young age at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland.
Does ‘Night of Hunters’ sound anything like Amos’s previous work? Are there any Amos ‘classics’ among the eleven tracks?
The answer to both questions is ‘Yes’: the most outstanding track may be the majestic and passionate ‘Star Whisperer’ (based on Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A major D 959), which is passionate in the tradition of the live version of ‘Sugar’ (from ‘To Venus & Back,’ 1999) and the title track from 2002’s ‘Scarlet’s Walk.’ ‘Night of Hunters’ (Scarlatti’s Sonata in F minor K. 466 and Gregorian Chant ‘Salva Regina’) is almost equally passionate, and also somewhat frightening, as only Amos can be: at points, the track sounds as if the Furies are descending.
‘Fearlessness’ has something of the drive of ‘Carbon’ and ‘Tombigbee,’ the catchy but serious-minded ‘Job’s Coffin’ features an excellent lead vocal by Amos’s young daughter Natashya Hawley, ‘Nautical Twilight’ features something of the playfulness of ‘The Wrong Band,’ ‘Wednesday,’ and ‘Velvet Revolution,’ while the closing track, ‘Carry’ (framed around a Debussy piece) is very much in the melancholy-but-hopeful tradition of past Amos closing tracks such as ‘A Thousand Oceans,’ ‘Gold Dust,’ ‘Toast,’ and ‘Our New Year.’
If the album stumbles, it does so at the beginning: The opening line of first track ‘Shattering Sea’ (Alkan’s Song of the Madwoman on the Sea-Shore, Prelude op. 31 no. 8), “That is not my blood on the bedroom floor,” is delivered melodramatically rather than dramatically, and, musically speaking, the composition simply isn’t compelling.
‘Battle of Trees,’ the third track, which is based on Erik Satie’s very short, mischievous, and elfin Gnossienne no. 1, is slowed to a crawl and extended to more than eight minutes. The result is flat, tepid, and considerably stalls the forward motion of the whole.
Whether ‘Night of Hunters’ is indeed “the best thing Amos has released in over a decade,” as some of the early reviews have claimed, will be up to each listener to decide. It may be that ‘Night of Hunters’ is simply a little purer than ‘The Beekeeper’ (2005), ‘American Doll Posse’ (2007), and the generally underrated ‘Abnormally Attracted to Sin’ (2009).
Most fans and listeners who enjoyed Amos’s holiday/solstice album, ‘Midwinter’s Graces’ (2009), will readily be able to embrace and recommend the beautiful, highly accomplished ‘Night of Hunters.’
Lastly: is Tori Amos one of the preeminent musical artists of her era? Undoubtedly.