Tuesday, November 29, 2011

W.L.'s Next Artist Of The Month Opens With Ani DiFranco's Not So Soft.

The Good: Good lyrics
The Bad: Musically limited, Vocally tiresome, Short
The Basics: Having heard many great female singer-songwriters, Ani DiFranco's Not So Soft does not convince me she is one of them.

For those who might not read my many music reviews, each month, I select an artist who is (usually) new to me to immerse myself in in order to expand my musical knowledge. Because I tend to select my Artists Of The Month without investigating them first, sometimes I end up selecting an artist who is overwhelmingly regarded with positive regard and my take is completely different. Ani DiFranco is my next Artist Of The Month and I selected her based on my love of independent female artists, love of folk-rock and her "street cred" within the feminist community. Having listened to Not So Soft several times now, I find myself flying in the face of public opinion when I write that this album is pretty lousy.

To be fair to Ani DiFranco and Not So Soft, I find that some of my discontent is based upon my experiences with a musician friend of mine who I went to college with in the mid-1990s. I loved her music and proudly bought her first album and now, encountering Ani DiFranco, I realize how completely derivative my friend was. While DiFranco might not be the pioneer of the plaintive, melodramatic one-woman-with-a-guitar folk-rock song style, she is arguably the most famous and the source of style for many who followed her. The thing is, while my fiance posits that DiFranco simply is trying to hard to be Alanis Morissette, DiFranco's rise in the folk-rock circuit with albums like Not So Soft precede Morissette's popular ascent with Jagged Little Pill. And while I might not be a fan of all of Morissette's works, she can carry a tune, something DiFranco seldom does on Not So Soft.

With fourteen tracks, clocking out at 48:10, is definitively the musical vision of artist Ani DiFranco. And DiFranco is a true artist, even at this early point in her career. She wrote all of the songs on the album and arranged all of the music as well. DiFranco provides all of the lead vocals - there are no real backing vocals on this album - and she plays the acoustic guitar and her own conga drums. As well, she plays the dust broom. She is also a co-producer on Not So Soft, so this is very much her musical vision.

And that vision is pretty limited, repetitive and atonal. Ani DiFranco on Not So Soft is a folk singer who is very much one woman with her guitar singing. Virtually every song sounds like she is singing to a coffee house audience with political messages that are valid and interesting. Still, on Not So Soft, DiFranco is not at all the next Joan Baez (Any Day Now is reviewed here!). Instead, the songs quickly become an amelodic droning of political and social themes.

Even if Ani DiFranco can write, the fundamental problem with Not So Soft is that she does not seem to be able to sing. Her vocal performances on "Rockabye" and "Make Me Stay" buck the argument that she cannot sing, leaving the listener with the idea that she simply does not want to sing with anything remotely approaching a melodic voice. Instead, much of DiFranco's vocal performance is a plaintive wail. This pedantic whining defines virtually all of the tracks and makes "On Every Corner" sound like "Anticipate" and "The Next Big Thing."

DiFranco's songs are almost all musical storysongs, with more emphasis on the story than on the song. DiFranco has stories she wants to tell and she tells them more than sings them. Her vocals are articulate, but barely carry a tune. Instead, much of Not So Soft is DiFranco moaning out her stories accompanied by a guitar and as interesting or audacious as the social commentary might be, it holds up poorly upon multiple listens.

As for the instrumentals, DiFranco's sound on Not So Soft is entirely limited. This is one woman, a guitar and a few moments when her voice actually carries a tune. If one had to define the sound of the coffeehouse woman, DiFranco might be it. The problem is, having heard so many strong female vocalists who can write and sing and have something to say, DiFranco's lone woman act sounds far less audacious and much more limited. Heck, comedian Judy Tenuta has more instrumental and vocal range than DiFranco presents on Not So Soft.

Arguably the reason DiFranco has achieves such popularity is that she clearly has something to say and she is quite a decent writer, at least in the idea that she writes atypical lyrics. DiFranco gives a voice to the voiceless and writes and sings about social problems, pressures in society, and coming out. With her song "On Every Corner," she poetically explores the plight of the world around her with line like "It's gonna be all right / And I am looking forward / To looking back on these days / When on every corner / Someone holds a sign / That says I'm homeless / I'm hungry and / I have AIDS / How will they define our generation / In the coming decades / Who will tell the story / And what will they say?" Singing about AIDS, lesbianism and war and peace helps define DiFranco as a social commentator in the folk-rock tradition.

And while there have been few lesbian, gay, bisexual artists on the scene outside folk-rock music, DiFranco seems to want to jump right into the niche, preceding Melissa Etheridge's coming out with songs like "The Whole Night." DiFranco helps establish or portray a "men are all dogs" type attitude popular in the more militant subcultures within the lesbian mainstream with songs like "Gratitude." Because, of course, men will always try to get one over on a woman, even a lesbian, as DiFranco explores when she sings "Thank you / For the use of the clean towel / Thank you for half of your bed / We can sleep here like brother and sister, / You said / But you changed the rules / In an hour or two / And I don't know what you / And your sisters do / But please don't / Please stop / This is not my obligation / What does my body have to do / With my gratitude" ("Gratitude")? This is not to say that music should not explore the complexities of rape, attempted rape or men who are jerks, but on Not So Soft, there is a pretty homogenous viewpoint expressed that seems more pointlessly defiant and an affect than genuine commentary.

Still, DiFranco makes some truly valid points, both about men, lesbianism and society in general. On "Roll With It," she is articulate and powerfully antiwar. Indeed, we could use more musical artists rallying to the call of pacifism with lines like "The mainstream is so polluted with lies / Once you get wet, it's so hard to get dry / We're all taught how to justify / History as it passes by / And it's your world / That comes crashing down / When the big boys decide / To throw their weight around" ("Roll With It"). Where were singers like DiFranco before the Iraq War?

Fundamentally, the problem with Not So Soft, though, is not the statement, it is the music or lack thereof. DiFranco is an immature musical artist and her album flops because it is monolithic and thematically melodramatic. In fact, it surprises me that so many people in their twenties would love this style and the substance behind it. While the substance is certainly adult, the method of delivery seems much more like it would appeal to tweens.

The best track is "Roll With It." The worst track - among many choices - is the title song Not So Soft. Anyone who likes great female singer songwriters can afford to pass on this album.

For other folk artists, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Promised Land - Dar Williams
Album 1700 - Peter, Paul And Mary
American Favorite Ballads (Boxed Set) – Pete Seeger


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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