Note: A video version of this review is also available on the Track X Track YouTube channel.
Like a lot of people who fell in love with the album Little Earthquakes back in 1992, I’ve been proud to say I’ve been a fan of Tori Amos since the very beginning.
But really, that’s not entirely accurate.
As most fans also know, the real beginning of this celebrated singer-songwriter’s career happened in 1988. Back then, she was fronting a pseudo synth-pop band called Y Kant Tori Read. The group’s self-titled debut album was a complete failure at the time. And really, it’s hardly fair to even call it a group. Most of the members ended up getting replaced throughout the band’s short lifespan. Ultimately, this was a Tori Amos project, just not one that in any way resembled the music that was still to come.
But for die hard Tori fans, tracking down a copy of Y Kant Tori Read was like finding the holy grail. And back before the days of the world wide web or even Napster, your best bet to hear it was picking up a bootleg. That’s what I ended up doing. I paid about 25 bucks for a bootleg of the CD at a record show sometime in the mid 90s. Of course, it’s been easily available online for probably ten years now, so there’s no reason any Tori fan couldn’t check it out if they were interested. I’d still love to have an original CD in my collection, but I’m not sure I’m willing to pay the price.
But now, after being out of print for almost 30 years, Y Kant Tori Read has finally been officially rereleased. A remastered edition of the album came out on streaming and digital download in September. And for the fans that have long waited for the chance to add the album to their CD or vinyl collection, the day has finally arrived. Record Store Day Black Friday 2017 sees the limited edition Y Kant Tori Read finally available on independent record store shelves across the country.
So, in honor of finally getting to add a legitimate copy of Tori Amos’ true debut album to my already large collection of Tori Amos CDs, I wanted to go ahead and review the album… talk about the music and put it into a bit more context, 30 years after its release.
The album kicks off with a song that instantly takes you back to the late 80s. “The Big Picture” sounds like a song you’d hear over the opening credits of a lighthearted drama probably starring Demi Moore or Michael J Fox. In fact, if you listen close to the music and ignore Tori’s voice, this sounds really similar to Harold Faltermeyer’s theme from “Fletch.” Lyrically, this song is very 80s, very preoccupied with the stereotypical Gen X themes of the time: being young and ambitious, ready to make it big. But that’s pretty far from the themes we’d be seeing Tori explore on her solo albums. It’s interesting that one of the most uncharacteristically Tori songs on the album would be the lead single. Years later, we know who Tori is and what she’s about. Looking back at Y Kant Tori Read, this song is a prime example of the sort of identity crisis that was taking place.
The second single from the album was also the second track. “Cool On Your Island” is definitely an improvement over the opening track. Here, we start to hear lyrics that are more in line with the Tori we’d get to know much better in the years that would follow. I’m not sure what to make of the tropical feeling of the track, though. Especially when the steel drums join in on the bridge. Tori is a versatile singer, but I don’t think the island vibe is a good fit for her.
On “Fayth,” Tori takes on a sort of scat-style rapping for the verses that’s almost comical in retrospect. I mean, back in 1988, seeing the leather clad dominatrix on the cover of this album and knowing nothing about the music that would come later, maybe this would seem to make sense. Today, though, it’s pretty cringe worthy in just about every way. But I have to give Tori credit here. She tackles those verses as earnestly as possible. And I do like a lot of elements to the music, too. There’s some cool guitar work here, and I dig the funky bass line too.
With “Fire On The Side,” we get our first glimpse at the “real” Tori Amos. Her piano makes its first appearance here, and what a welcome appearance it is. This is easily one of the highlights on the album. There’s no denying the production on this track dates it quite a bit, but the song itself is more timeless. With a different arrangement, this song could easily fit on a more recent Tori album.
From one of the best songs on the album we move to one of the weakest. It’s not that “Pirates” is a bad song, it’s just… completely forgettable. There’s just nothing interesting about this song whatsoever. The lyrics are bland, the vocal is unremarkable, and music is uninspired. Total filler material.
“Floating City” fares a bit better, though. Here we get a more adventurous sound, with ominous, deep synths and pounding drums. The pulsating rhythm is mainly lead by percussive chimes, which is a cool effect. In a lot of ways, this song actually reminds me of the sound Depeche Mode was experimenting with a couple years earlier on their Black Celebration album. For me, this is one of the best tracks on the album. It feels like what Y Kant Tori Read is supposed to feel like while at the same time showing signs of the kind of songwriter Tori Amos was going to evolve into. This is one of the few songs on this album that I think holds up years later without feeling uncomfortably dated.
“Heart Attack at 23” is a really interesting track if only for the opening. This song gives us the first glimpse of Tori’s skills on the piano, but only for about 45 seconds at the very beginning of the song. After that, the song abruptly shifts into full rock-mode, falling somewhere between Huey Lewis’ “Heart of Rock and Roll” and Glenn Frey’s “The Heat is On.” We still get a few piano accents here and there, but ultimately, this is a guitar rocker. That may be why this is one of the few songs on this album that Tori has never revisited in concert over the years. And that’s probably for the best. Other than the piano intro, this is one of the least Tori-like songs on the album.
“On The Boundary” dials things back a little, trading distortion for more shimmering guitars and synthesized background strings. From a songwriting perspective, this track actually sounds like it could have come from one of her early solo albums if it were rearranged to feature piano. As it is, there’s no sign of her trademark keyboard skills here. Still, I think it’s one of the better tracks on the album.
Then on “You Go To My Head,” we get one of the noisier tracks on the album. This song is full of punchy bass, quirky little synth pops and a cheesy 80s sax solo. But underneath it all, I think there’s still traces of good songwriting here. Again, with a different arrangement, I think this song could have found its way into the world as maybe a Little Earthquakes b-side. That being said, this is another track Tori has never revisited in concert, so maybe she doesn’t quite see the potential.
The album wraps up with the nearly seven minute long “Etienne Trilogy.” To be fair, calling this a trilogy is a bit generous, or maybe even pretentious. The first section, called “The Highlands,” is a minute and a half long instrumental passage, highlighted by rising synth strings, similar to the opening of “Where The Streets Have No Name” by U2. It’s pretty enough, I guess, but as it blends into part two of the trilogy, there’s no clear reason why these pieces should be connected.
But you’ll forgive that musical non-sequitur almost immediately because “Etienne” finally gives Tori a chance to do what she does best. It seems almost fitting that the album would end with a beautiful piano ballad… sort of a sign of what was to come. This was unplanned, of course, but in retrospect it makes for a nice transition to her solo work.
And it would have been fine to end the album there, but, this is a trilogy, so we still need part three, which is a minute of superfluous bagpipe solo. And honestly, isn’t about 90% of all bagpipe superfluous?
In the end, I don’t think it has ever been fair to say that Y Kant Tori Read was a bad album. But make no mistake, it’s not a good album, either. And that was kind of the problem. In 1988, this was a debut album… a new artist trying to make an impression on listeners and, maybe even more importantly, radio programmers. There just wasn’t enough of a fresh or new sound here to elevate the music above everything else that was out there at the time.
And just a couple years later, grunge music would explode and make the sound of Y Kant Tori Read utterly obsolete. On the other hand, how might this so-called band have fared if they’d come out in the mid 90s instead? In the wake of Alanis Morissette’s huge success with Jagged Little Pill, there was a market for the angry, empowered, female rocker. Y Kant Tori Read might have fit in well with that emerging genre.
So we’re probably lucky that Tori Amos found herself and her sound when she did. When Little Earthquakes came out in 1992, it was the antithesis of grunge. And on top of that, it was an album that rejected the hyper sexualized image of women in popular music. It would be part of a wave of singer songwriters about to create a new genre. And even though Tori Amos never participated in Lilith Fair, I think it is fair to say she helped lay the foundation upon which that movement was built. That’s not to say that if Y Kant Tori Read had not evolved into Tori Amos we wouldn’t have gotten Lilith Fair. But I do think it is unlikely Y Kant Tori Read… the band… would have developed a meaningful musical legacy as rich as what has come from Tori Amos, the solo artist.
But at the same time, the world may not have discovered the music of Tori Amos had she not grown and evolved artistically from the failure and experience of Y Kant Tori Read. Little Earthquakes was a reinvention that required Tori Amos to emerge from a very different place. Today, I’m happy to see she has embraced her genesis and is truly offering this music to her fans for the first time.
So I’m giving Y Kant Tori Read a rating of 5 out of 10. But that’s for the music on its own. In terms of the album’s importance in the evolution of Tori Amos, it may very well be a 10.