Strange Little Girls by Tori Amos

The long-standing tradition of artists reinterpreting the work of fellow artists is often regarded as a stop-gap until the next album of originals is released. Obviously the cover album is meant to be a bonus, something for fans to enjoy, yet never to be taken into serious consideration. A cover album serves two functions. It may be the artist is burnt out from writing, touring, and creating. It’s tough to be creative for cash, trust me. Singing other people’s songs gives fans new music and the artist a much-deserved break. It’s an easy (or lazy) way to record and release. The other function is that it gets new product into the market. There are also two types of cover album. There’s the lazy sort that Simon Cowell forces on his signings, the list of hopefuls who stood on an X every week so they could win a lazy cash-in compilation rather than the career they expected. The bargain bin is crammed with Mother’s Day cash-ins, entire track-lists full of Everly Brothers covers, schmaltzy cheap sounding pop that even a lift hurling down to Hell would refuse to play. But there’s also another type of cover album. I call this the individualist cover album, the sort created by artists who really want to say something different with songs they didn’t write. These singers want to make songs that sound like they wrote them, even though they didn’t.

Siouxsie and the Banshees did this in Through The Looking Glass, a collection of classic pop songs that were important to Siouxsie Sioux during her formative years, each classic given a suitably murky Banshees refit. Bowie famously recorded Pin-Ups, though unfortunately for him, the cover photograph with Twiggy is probably more famous than the actual songs. Then there’s Tori Amos, who was never going to be satisfied with recording dull straight cover versions. Not only did she surprise her fans with her intention to put out a CD of covers (I literally gasped at the news during study break back in 2001), but she made eyebrows fly off foreheads with the news Strange Little Girls was to be a concept album of gender-swapped songs. Tori was determined to give a voice to characters often maligned in the music, people we’ve known for years through verse and chorus. 97 Bonnie And Clyde, an Eminem single released at the height of his power, was probably the biggest surprise for me personally. I’m not sure why, because it isn’t as though Tori hadn’t successfully bent her artistry around different styles of music in the past. Tori takes 97 Bonnie And Clyde (originally about Eminem killing and disposing of his wife’s body) and performs it from the perspective of the wife, Kim. Same words, different point of view. Tori literally gives a voice to a woman who has no voice in the original song. Happiness Is A Warm Gun – yes, she covered The Beatles and brilliantly so – is immediately shaken up by samples of George Bush and his father, finishing the song with an anti-gun sentiment. Some songs are more familiar than others. Enjoy The Silence is so good that covering it seems pointless, but Tori does a good job and it took me years to realise she’d altered the lyric of words are meaningless and forgettable to unforgettable. Then there’s Rattlesnakes, a remake of the Lloyd Cole and the Commotions track, that gives a brand new spin on the lyrics through her delivery, particularly she reads Simone de Beauvoir in her American circumstance. Something about a woman singing those words makes sense to me. The song now sounds like the aftermath of something traumatising, a reading I barely took from the original. However, for me personally, the best song on the album is the title track. I’ve never been massively keen on The Stranglers because my dad is obsessed with them. He has all the vinyl dating back to the ’70s that I fully intend to donate to a bin the first chance I get. He’s been to see The Stranglers in every incarnation. Their music was played constantly during my youth to the point I just can’t listen to them anymore, particularly the new version of the group. But Strange Little Girl is a better version than the original, especially in the context of an album track-list which places the song straight after 97 Bonnie And Clyde, so that the child Eminem originally rapped about, his daughter, becomes the strange little girl in Tori’s remake. Oh, the genius.

The CD came brilliantly packaged with photographs of each character created by Tori for other’s people’s songs. The inner booklet matched each character with their song, but even without the clues, it was easy enough to do on your own. Every week I bought CDs, three at least, making my cupboard shelves heave dangerously. But I also obsessed over physical formats, buying singles and albums, making a study of the artwork, lyrics, and writing credits. Something I didn’t spot until a few days ago when I listened to this album again was that every song on the track list is written by men. An album called Strange Little Girls with songs by men performed by a woman. The audacity! But I love it and really, isn’t this utterly the sort of thing Tori would do?

Tori Amos is an artist whose work continues to reach out for those willing to hear what she has to say. She didn’t need to sing songs she didn’t write. Of course she didn’t. But that’s too easy for Tori and I’m grateful she tackled the cover album. By turns intriguing, shocking, fun, and sometimes a little puzzling, Strange Little Girls is ultimately a fearless attempt at empowering female voices stuck in male-dominated perspectives. It might also be an underrated triumph of storytelling and Tori’s most enduring statement of intent. Most importantly, it has aged very well. In reclaiming these songs for women, Tori possibly made her most fearless feminist statement and did so without compromise. This, I think, is why Strange Little Girls will always be within easy reach for me.

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