CD Review of A Piano: The Collection by Tori Amos

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A Piano: The Collection
starstarhalf starno starno star Label: Rhino
Released: 2006
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In the mid-‘90s, nearly every alienated teenage girl in America was a Tori Amos fan. Scratch that, they were diehard fans of the red-headed chanteuse, not only buying all of her albums, EP’s, imports and singles as soon as they could – listening to them obsessively while reading issues of Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” and writing in their journals about how no one understands their awesome non-conformist ways. Over the years, the size of her devoted fan base has decreased substantially, but those who remain still have an intense love for her deeply personal, emotional music. So many of them, despite having all of Tori Amos’ albums, singles, EPs, live releases and god only knows what else, have already run out and bought her new box set A Piano: The Collection without ever glancing at the track listing – and not realizing that while there’s some solid material here, they probably already own most of the songs on the high-priced, intricately packaged box set.

Calling this set “intricately packaged” is probably an understatement, since the box that the CD’s come in is more interesting than some of the songs they decided to put on them. The lid of the box resembles a piano (complete with raised keys) and inside there’s a beautiful hardcover booklet, filled with photos of Tori over the years as well as commentary by her on various songs. She doesn’t comment on every track in the set, but at 86 tracks, that’s understandable.

That may sound like a lot of music, but let’s do the math. Of those 86 songs, 33 are simply album tracks culled from Amos’ back catalogue. That’s over two and a half CD’s of material that most Tori Amos fans already have. After you subtract those tracks, you’re left with 53 – 18 of which are just alternate mixes or remixed versions of previously released songs. Now we’re down to 35 songs. 23 of those 35 tracks are previously released B-sides to various singles the singer has released over the years. Only the remaining 12 songs are “previously unreleased” but even that’s a bit of a misnomer. Of those 12, only seven are never-before-heard songs, the others are alternate versions and demos of previously released songs.

Despite the girth of previously released material on this collection, there are still a few standouts. The first disc, which is titled “Little Earthquakes Extended” is intended to represent the original version of the album that Atlantic Records had in fact turned down. Included on it are four B-sides that didn’t make the final cut, including “Flying Dutchman” and “Upside Down,” as well as alternate mixes of various songs, including “Leather” and “Precious Things,” that sound very similar to the originals. Many still consider Little Earthquakes to be Amos’ best album, so it’s not a surprise that this extended take on her debut record is the highlight of the set.

The second disc of the set includes material from her next two releases, Under the Pink and Boys for Pele. The majority of this disc is nothing more than album tracks and more alternate mixes (which still sound incredibly similar to the original version) and only have five or so B-sides and rarities. The previously unreleased “Take Me with You” is a pleasant surprise, however.

Disc Three is when things start to go downhill. Going out of the previously established chronological order, it contains more songs related to Boys for Pele and then skips to To Venus and Back and her greatest hits collection Tales of a Librarian. To Venus and Back was Tori’s two-disc set from 1999, which contained one CD of new material and one live disc. Most of the stuff pulled from that two-disc release for A Piano: The Collection is from the studio disc and, as one of her weaker efforts, is pretty disposable.

Disc Four includes material from her two most recent releases Scarlet’s Walk and The Beekeeper, while also skipping back to her 1998 album, Tales from the Choirgirl Hotel. There’s sadly a girth of B-sides here, but the three previously unreleased songs, including the grooving “Not David Bowie,” are great.

The set concludes with a collection of B-sides and other odds and sods, including a “demo medley” and a couple more unreleased tracks. This is the disc that many of the hardcore fans will cling to, as it contains nothing but rarities and unreleased material, and none of the readily available album tracks that needlessly weigh down the rest of the set.

What makes the inclusion of so many album tracks even more frustrating is that a large chunk of Amos’ B-sides and EP tracks are still not accounted for on this set. Countless B-sides, including her awesome cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the various remixes of “Raspberry Swirl” are absent. Also, Strange Little Girls, her 2001 cover album, is skipped completely. While that wasn’t a great album, it had its standouts, and the outtakes form those recording sessions (which included a version of Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet”) would have been real interesting to hear. Needless to say, her long out-of-print 1988 debut, Y Kant Tori Read, which supposedly features a very ‘80s sound, is nowhere to be found also. That album, and illegal bootlegs of it, still fetches a pretty penny on eBay, so the demand for it is out there – so it’s a shame that nothing from it made the cut here.

Just who is this box set for? It’s not designed for her diehard fans, as most of it is comprised of previously released material they probably already have, and it’s not for casual fans – as they probably aren’t interested in the bizarre B-sides and rough-cut demos. What Tori Amos really needed to release was a two or three disc set of B-sides and other rarities, and not this bloated collection that seems more like an attempt to milk her already obsessive fans for just one more dollar. That being said, if you’re one of those people that most absolutely must own every thing she’s ever recorded, you’ll probably buy this anyway.

~James B. Eldred