Sunday, December 11, 2011

Ani DiFranco Opens With An Average Debut That Underwhelms

The Good: "Both Hands" is a legitimately great song, Moments of voice/lyrics
The Bad: Repetitive sound, Short, Bland
The Basics: Ani DiFranco is a thoroughly average debut for a vastly overrated folk-rock artist.

While I have worked to get through my extensive backlog of reviews - a near impossibility since my fiance moved in with me - I have heard a lot from other people in my house about my music. After all, when one shares a floor with a loved one, it is natural that they will pipe in with their two cents. Since my study of Ani DiFranco began, I've been getting sidelong glances and glares and every now and then, my fiance growls, "Shouldn't your criteria for your Artist Of The Month be that the artist is actually good?" I wish I had room to disagree with her.

Having worked my way back to the debut album of Ani DiFranco, appropriately titled Ani DiFranco, I am surprised that this no-hit wonder (DiFranco has a loyal audience, but has never achieved mainstream success or even much in the way of radio airplay outside the college radio circuit and, one supposes, alternative stations. In fact, outside her loyal audience and Buffalo, NY, there are many people who have never even heard of Ani DiFranco) endured long enough to make a living off her music. While many folk-rock debut albums illustrate potential for an artist, Ani DiFranco shows little hope, though some of her subsequent albums are even worse. The thing is, fans and casual listeners might well be bowled over by the greatness of the opening track, "Both Hands" or the vocal decency of "Talk To Me Now," which is the second song, but those who objectively listen to the entire album, especially on replay, are likely to find, as I have, that it is average at best.

With thirteen tracks - "The Slant" is a poem, not actually a song - clocking out at 46:53, Ani DiFranco is a rather traditional and mundane folk-rock debut by a musical artist whose strength is clearly in her lyrics and writing skills as opposed to her musical abilities. The album lives up to its title and is very much the musical vision of Ani DiFranco as each song was written and performed by her. The compact disc does not have instrumental credits, but it seems likely DiFranco performed her guitars as she is known for them and much of her sound on this album is the "lone woman with a guitar" musical experience. DiFranco is credited as the album's sole producer and for a debut album this is quite extraordinary, though given that DiFranco founded her own label to release her music, this is less surprising.

Ani DiFranco on Ani DiFranco has something to say, but her tone is monotonous, her instrumentation is dull and the only shining beacon on the album is the quality of her lyrics. Indeed, had the songs on this album been released as poetry instead, it is of a quality that would likely intrigue and engage those who appreciate more highbrow publications like The New Yorker. Well, it would, if she punctuated and spaced it differently, but as far as diction and message goes, Ani DiFranco is rich with lyrical depth and meaning that is likely to stimulate listeners and engage them.

The problem, though, is that DiFranco fails to engage the listener with her musical abilities. After a dozen listens, the only recognizable tune on the entire album is that of "Both Hands" (and to be fair, I've been listening to an a cappella version of it for years, so that might bias me toward that even!). "Work Your Way Out" and "Dog Coffee" are more emblematic of the instrumental sensibilities on Ani DiFranco with their seemingly random guitar strummings and lack of a melody. "Pale Purple" begins with a melancholy guitar that is virtually identical to the way "Talk To Me Now" opens and even "Rush Hour," which I have heard in other incarnations, lacks anything recognizable as a tune.

Vocally, Ani DiFranco peaks early on the album. "Both Hands" is melodic and beautiful, though even there she treads toward the nasal sound in her vocals. She is beautifully soprano for the difficult lines of "Talk To Me Now," but after that the album falls apart on the vocals. "Pale Purple" illustrates wonderful soprano vocals which DiFranco mumbles her way inarticulately through, then produces her guitar strummings over. The songs are presented more in a hushed speaking-singing that is annoying to listen to. On "Rush Hour," for example, she sounds like she is singing half through her nose and her vocals are melodramatically presented such that she makes it sound like each line is a pain for her to get out.

In other words, it is very easy to tire quickly of the sound of Ani DiFranco on her debut. And what keeps the listener listening, arguably, is her lyrics. Ani DiFranco is someone who has something to say. The problem with much of the album is that she does not seem to want to expend the energy to sing it or say it clearly. The result is a folk-rock album that sounds like the work of an amateur.

But DiFranco is not writing like an amateur, even on this debut. Take, for example, her album-opener, "Both Hands." DiFranco righteously and beautifully explores the sense of loss that comes with the end of a relationship. When she sings "I am walking / Out in the rain / And I am listening to the low moan / Of the dial tone again / And I am getting / Nowhere with you / And I can't let it go / And I can't get through . . . Now use both hands / Oh, no don't close your eyes / I am writing / Graffiti on your body / I am drawing the story of / How hard we tried" ("Both Hands") it is hard for anyone who has ever lost love to not nod their head in agreement and say "yeah, I've been there!" DiFranco gets the sound and emotion right and she phrases the demise of relationships perfectly and sets the listener up for something much better than the rest of the album holds.

Take, for example, "Fire Door." "Fire Door" is much like the rest of the songs on "Ani DiFranco," a musical storysong that seems to be deeply personal and is at its very worst interesting and different from what most musical artists put out on the radio. But her stories are more esoteric than universal when she writes lines like "You know, taken out of context I must / Seem so strange / Killed a cockroach so big / It left a puddle of pus on the wall / When you and I are lying in bed / You don't seem so tall / I'm singing now because my tear ducts are too tired / And my brain is disconnected but my heart is wired" ("Fire Door"). Much of the music on Ani DiFranco seems autobiographical (she references herself directly in the second song) and that robs the album some of any pretense of a universal quality.

Still, there is just enough in the universal melancholy quality of songs like "Out Of Habit" to recommend potential listeners read the writing of Ani DiFranco. And on "Letting The Telephone Ring," she makes the personal universal when she sings "I am letting the telephone ring / 'Cause I don't want to know why / I don't want to hear you explain / I don't want to hear you cry" and it works beautifully. If only it were sung in a way that was remotely musical!

Ultimately, that is the undoing of Ani DiFranco. She sounds like a coffee house standard and in many ways she is. On Ani DiFranco, she could be any number of poets at open mike night or any number of women who put out a demo tape. The problem for her is that outside the strength of some of her lyrics, she could be anyone and it is hard to care about her specifically or this endeavor as a result.

The best song is "Both Hands," the low point is the thoroughly unmemorable "Every Angle."

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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