The Good: Good lyrics
The Bad: Boring music, Terrible vocals, Short
The Basics: Dull and musically and vocally bad, Imperfectly is a real miss by Ani DiFranco!
As one who values the concept of balance in reviews, I suppose there ought to be a part of me that is thrilled to be spending the month reviewing the works of Ani DiFranco. After all, by having so much material that I am not enjoying, I am able to keep a decent sense about my overall reviews and I am not simply reviewing things that I like. At the same time, as a person who sits down and listens to a ton of c.d.s in order to be able to write music reviews consistently is beginning to get a bit peeved and is eager for something - anything! - that stimulates my ears and I actually enjoy again. It seems like it has been so long since I last heard something that actually stimulated me and I wanted to eagerly recommend and tell everyone about.
Therefore, the latest Ani DiFranco disappointment I find myself listening to is Imperfectly, an album I am fairly shocked to see I am the first one to pan. At the beginning of the month, I would have been shocked because I had so many people telling me of the greatness of Ani DiFranco, I would have been surprised to discover so many of them were so wrong about her music. Now, though, I am surprised that - even as I recognize I have high standards based upon listening to a plethora of different types of music - I am the only one who apparently is bored with the bland vocals, listless instrumentals and repetitive messages of Ani DiFranco. And I was one who was biased toward her when I started my exploration of her works!
With thirteen songs coming in at 43:59, Imperfectly is the worst Ani DiFranco album I've listened to to date. The album is distinctly the work of Ani DiFranco. DiFranco wrote all thirteen songs and she provides lead vocals on every song. As well, she plays acoustic guitar on virtually every song, though she plays slide guitar, some percussion and coffee grounds on other songs. On the production end, DiFranco is one of the album's three co-producers. In other words, this is her vision and it is hard to argue that DiFranco is anything other than a true artist with real ambition.
On Imperfectly, though, the question is not one of ambition, it is a question of ability. This is a poor outing for DiFranco and some of the songs that are on here are just dogs and others have been performed better by DiFranco on live albums. So, for example, "Every State Line" appears on Imperfectly screeched out atonally and plaintively in a way that is utterly boring. The same song appears on one of her live albums accompanied by instruments with a richer sound and DiFranco performing more melodically. Conversely, "Circle Of Light" is instrumentally richer than most any song on the album, but DiFranco's vocals are equally grating and whiny.
As a feminist, there is something supremely disappointing about hearing a musical artist like DiFranco who clearly has something to say, but performs it with a monotonous way that is virtually unlistenable. On Imperfectly, this is present in both the instrumentals and vocals. The instrumentals are boring to the point where replaying the album over and over again does not net a sound that is indistinct, but rather one that is painful for the aural limitations of the works. DiFranco on Imperfectly is often one woman with a guitar and this is exactly what she sounds like instrumentally. The thing is, it is possible to be one woman and a guitar and still make interesting music. Unfortunately, DiFranco does not on this album. Instead, she strums about the same three chords with barely enough musical accompaniment to call the tracks "songs" without creating anything recognizable enough to call a tune or a harmony.
As for the vocals, DiFranco presents her vocals with a blandly assertive quality that becomes tiresome the longer the album goes on. It seems no matter what DiFranco is singing on Imperfectly, she is presenting it with the same sense of urgency and desperation. Between that and the nasal quality she infuses to her singing voice, the vocals . . . well, they are just plain terrible. On songs like "Good, Bad, Ugly," her voice alternated between speaking more than singing and singing through her nose. Either way, the song falls down because whatever she is singing is presented in such an unpalatable way. This is the plague of much of Imperfectly. "Coming Up" features vocals where DiFranco speaks over herself on separate tracks and the chaos is unlistenable.
So, what usually encourages fans of Ani DiFranco to ignore the musical shortcomings of DiFranco are her lyrics. But on Imperfectly, DiFranco's lines are not her most impressive by any means or any stretch of the imagination. So, for example, on "Good, Bad, Ugly" her rhymes are positively boring when she sings "And it's bad / That I took that second look / I guess I'm an open book / You know I didn't really intend / To embrace you that long / But then again I wasn't the only one / Holding on." DiFranco is known for folk-rock storysongs, but "Good, Bad, Ugly" does not tell even a remotely interesting storysong, nor does its follow-up, "I'm No Heroine."
More than that, some of her sentiments are positively baffling, especially from the feminist perspective. I just don't get why those interested in feminism, grrrl power or even just gender equality would rally to lines like "He looks me up and down / Like he knows what time it is / Like he's got my number / Like he thinks it's his / He says, / 'Call me, Miss DiFranco, / If there's anything I can do' / I say, / 'It's Mr. DiFranco to you'" ("In Or Out"). When DiFranco presents a female musical protagonist who wants to be called "Mr.," one suspects she loses all but her most militant fans.
Also largely absent on Imperfectly is a strong sense of social commentary, which is something DiFranco is known for. Here, she makes a passing effort mostly with "Every State Line," which explores the contradictions of states rights vs. a sense of national identity. The most passionate she gets in the song is when she sings "I'm in the middle of Alabama / They stare at me where ever I go / I don't think they like my haircut / I don't think they like my clothes / I can't wait to get back to New York City / Where at least when I walk down the street / Nobody ever hesitates / To tell me exactly what they think of me" ("Every State Line"). This type of self-referential indignancy is hardly as interesting as, for example, calling world leaders out for getting nations into war, avoiding civil rights issues or promoting the spread of AIDS.
The result is that Imperfectly is not only easy to pass on, but easy to encourage listeners to avoid. Even though I might not be enjoying Ani DiFranco as my April Artist Of The Month, I can easily differentiate between the better works by her . . . and this. Anyone who loves Ani DiFranco would do well to steer clear of this one.
The best song is "Every State Line," the rest of the album is unlistenable.
For other Ani DiFranco works, please check out my reviews of:
Not So Soft
Not A Pretty Girl
Living In Clip
Little Plastic Castle
For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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