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Tori Amos 

The Beekeeper (Epic)

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Tori Amos perfected her ability to combine creative risks with emotional introspection on early discs like 1996's Boys for Pele, which struck a welcome balance between modern flash and old-fashioned sentimentality. But on Amos's recent experimental albums, listeners felt curiously removed from the flame-haired faerie queen, largely because their characters weren't very compelling (2001's covers disc Strange Little Girls) or were too obscure (2002's Scarlet's Walk).

At 19 songs, Amos's eighth solo effort, The Beekeeper, is no less ambitious, but its stripped-back production and resonant lyrics make it one of the most subtle and affecting works in her catalog. Amos uses language as deftly as Sylvia Plath and crafts extended metaphors with perfect verbal economy. Beekeeper works best musically when her lilting piano compositions remain unadorned by slick studio flourishes -- save for the title track, a moving Portishead doppelgänger. Only several uneven forays into funky '70s soul needlessly muddle Amos's classically trained exorcisms of the psyche's demons.

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