A Piano: The Collection is a mammoth undertaking by Tori Amos and Rhino Records. This box set collects album cuts, B-sides, unedited and alternate versions, demos, and seven previously unissued cuts. Making one's way through it is to enter a labyrinth, a parallel but alternate universe that traces the development of the artist from her earliest recordings (with the exception of Y Kant Tori Read, of course) through her transformation as a conceptual songwriter, musician, and artisan who has moved tumultuously through the pop world without, it appears, ever losing her vision or sense of herself. Amos produced this set, and Rhino cross-licensed material from Epic as well. Amos annotates each track here in the handsome hardbound book that accompanies it, which also contains a boatload of photos and an essay by Lorraine Ali. The set comes packaged under a large plastic piano keyboard -- this aspect of it is simply irritating. The "piano as part of the package" has been done before -- and done better -- in other artists' retrospectives. It's cheesy.
The five discs here, however, cover virtually every part of Amos' iconic, often iconoclastic career. Virtually every part of Little Earthquakes is explored, which is why disc one is titled "Little Earthquakes Extended" (since basically three versions of the album were completed). These include the singles, such as the unedited 45 version of "Crucify," the alternate mix of "Flying Dutchman," and an alternate mix of "Mother." Even the unissued "Take Me With You" from the Little Earthquakes session is here, but it appears on disc two. With all the B-sides and alternates issued, Little Earthquakes is , in retrospect, a far more prophetic and ever wider ranging offering than the officially released original version. Much of Amos' restlessness as an artist is revealed even at this early stage. Beginning with disc two, the remainder of her recordings are picked from, rather than presented in their complete versions. From disc two on, Amos picks and chooses from her catalog, providing many alternate mixes -- perhaps she liked them better than the original versions. For instance, the presented mixes of "The Waitress" and "Baker Baker" are revelatory in their sense of drama and dynamic. A different version of "Caught a Sneeze" from Boys for Pele offers a sense of just how strange and beguiling this cut is. The B-sides include "Honey," which was the flip of "Pretty Good Year," and a live version of "Professional Widow," which came on the backside of "Hey Jupiter." Disc three is compiled from the rest of Pele, To Venus and Back, and Tales of a Librarian, and is simply loaded with remixes, including Armand Van Helden's badass take on "Professional Widow," the single remix of "Concertina," and "Sugar" from the soundcheck on the To Venus and Back tour. It's a dizzying and sometimes off-kilter and troubling disc, especially coming as it does smack in the middle of the package. However there is the "Walk to Dublin (Sucker Remix)" that has never been officially released.
Cutting through the fourth disc, you can't help but notice that it does feel rushed as it covers material from the Epic period, including selections from Scarlet's Walk, Beekeeper, and From the Choirgirl Hotel -- it's wildly arrayed in textures and colors that don't seem to fit together. Add into the mix four tracks that have never been released, from who knows what sessions, and you have a serious car crash. But then again, there's beauty in this kind of mashup, too, in that the sonic chaos is even violent at times as you juxtapose cuts such as a remix of "Jackie's Strength" with the unreleased "Zero Point" and then jump to "Sweet the Sting" from Beekeeper; this mishmash, though creates and contains a new symmetry and a new series of angles with no center except for the artist herself. Discs three and four are real challenges, but also far more rewarding given all the cracks in the sidewalk that Amos chose to step on rather than jump across. Here is where the tale of the artist is told, actually, in the continuing conflicts of style and how to weave substance that was ever more abstract into these new soundworlds she'd chosen. The last disc contains 11 B-sides that were featured as additional tracks on singles and EPs, and there is one more unreleased cut in "Peeping Tommi." The final 11 cuts contain more flipsides and a medley of demos, which make for another kind of insanity. These contain three unreleased demos of "Fire Eater's Wife/Beauty Queen," "Playboy Mommy," and "A Sorta Fairytale" before folding back into the otherwise issued recordings. It's as if they're folded in to the mix in order (so to speak) to sort something out -- to break up the disparate tracks but in the end only making them more so. It's not only curious but infuriating, seductive, engaging, and sometimes utterly puzzling.
After all is said and done, however, there is silence, and with that comes the sense and enormity of the sheer wonder of it all. Amos has pissed off everybody at one time or another, even her hardest core of fans who've stuck with her through thick and thin. Given that she's only been out there in the public ears and eyes for 16 years, she has gone through numerous phases and stages, and it reminds one of Bob Dylan, the true iconoclast who seems to be enjoying a resurgence in popularity in 2006. Amos' reach is long, and for all its beauty, there are knots, warts, cuts, and bruises. And that's what A Piano is, ultimately: an embarkation through a provocative and sometimes grotesque journey, through bruises and kisses which offer a new look through the past as it points toward the future -- which is exactly what a box set is supposed to do,