The Good: A few lyrics, Moments of voice or music
The Bad: Most of the music, vocals and lyrics
The Basics: Ani DiFranco disappoints with Reprieve, an album whose best songs are all dated and the rest gel together in an indistinct "one woman and a guitar" sound.
Have you ever listened to a c.d. on heavy rotation several times only to come away from the experience unsure what it is you have listened to? I call albums that fail to leave any impression "indistinct" and I am slowly building a library of reviews of albums that are utterly indistinct. In fact, virtually every major artist I have encountered seems to have at least one album where the work leaves virtually no impression. For Ani DiFranco, that album is Reprieve.
Reprieve is a dated work from 2006 that continues Ani DiFranco's folk-rock musical tradition, though this time there are fewer universal storysongs and more in the way of specific references to events in the United States during the Bush Administration. Unlike something like the song "Empire" from the Dar Williams album My Better Self where Williams attacks the Bush Administration policies in broad strokes that could be useful should another authoritarian leader take over, DiFranco references Halliburton and Enron ("Millennium Theater") and tattoos ("Shroud") (tattoos in mainstream are very much a fad of now, as opposed to even ten years ago - in the '90s, one might remember, it was all piercings!) which place a very specific context to many of her songs. And while DiFranco might have something to say lyrically, she has almost no ability to say them musically as she whisps her way through the album in a way that leaves virtually no impression.
With thirteen songs, clocking out at 46:36, Reprieve is Ani DiFranco at some of her most bland. DiFranco sings, plays guitars and "all other instruments" outside what her three accompanists perform, and wrote the music and lyrics for all of the songs. As well, she mixed and produced Reprieve and as a result, it is hard to argue that the resulting album is anything other than her musical vision and her desired sense of self expression.
The problem is, from the first musing piano and guitar chords of "Hypnotized," DiFranco mumbles her way through a folk rock experience utterly lacking in any sense of power or empowerment. "Hypnotized," for example, is lyrically repetitive and musically bland in a way that lulls the listener into a stupor. The problem with the album Reprieve, though, is that DiFranco never breaks the listener out of that stupor. She sinks the listener in and never wakes them up. As a result, the album can play on replay several times without leaving the listener satisfied or thinking they have even heard anything. It is, in the truest sense of the word, indistinct music.
Instrumentally, most of the album is a well-produced "one woman and a guitar" sound. But every song sounds like DiFranco in a spotlight, singing her heart out with effort, but not force. There is a homogenous sound to the album that quickly becomes monotonous. Indeed, the whole idea of "I don't hear a single" certainly applies to this album. None of the songs stand out from each other and none of them especially stand out in general, either.
Vocally, DiFranco is melodic, but none of the songs she sings have anything remotely recognizable as a melody that endures. Having listened to the album a dozen times now, I could not recall a single tune. Indeed, as I write this and the piano and guitar flow and float slowly over my ears, I have no idea what I am hearing. The instrumentals on Reprieve have about as much substance as the wind. At least DiFranco is not screeching or utilizing a nasal tone for this album.
Beyond that, Reprieve lets down fans and well-wishers of Ani DiFranco because the lyrics are not up to her usual standards. A poignant example might well be "A Spade." On that song, DiFranco rails quietly against war and misogyny, religious intolerance and intolerance in general, with bland lines like "I will not lie down / On the wrongful ground or play / While it's still a radical sound / Just to call a spade a spade . . . I mean, how's this supposed to look to me / But half of divinity / Out there trying to make harmony / With only one voice" ("A Spade"). When DiFranco avoids being confrontational and pleads, the lines come out less interesting than when she vocally picks fights. Her antiwar, antinuclear, pro-feminist song Reprieve is similarly simple and mediocre on the lyrics front.
This is not to say DiFranco has lost all of her fire or her relevance. Indeed, at a time when other artists were avoiding calling out the Bush Administration, she wrote and sang "Ramadan orange alert / Everybody put on your gas mask / First leak it out about the president / Then stand up and shout "impeachment" / Pulling coat tails out from under that little V.P. / Before he has a chance to get in the driver's seat . . . Trickle down Israel / Patriarchies realign / The ice caps melt / And New Orleans bides her time" ("Millennium Theater"). The problem is that this makes Reprieve much more a subject of its times than an enduring album. Moreover, for all of her fans who applaud the audacity of Ani DiFranco, such statements were far safer for artists to be singing about in 2006 than, say, on September 12, 2001.
But when she is not being dated, she is pandering to the coffeehouse, college town audiences with lines like "I hate you sometimes / But I love to be your queen / You are my muse / Got me smoking nicotine" ("Nicotine"). The rhymes DiFranco is using are not particularly audacious or even interesting and "Nicotine" is a good example of how she seems to have hit a rut and is happy to flop down in it as opposed to innovating lyrically.
Ultimately, then, it is the lack of audacity that sinks Reprieve. The album sounds like wind, ethereal and bland . . . yes, indistinct in a way that makes fans of folk-rock hesitant to acknowledge this.
The best song is "Millennium Theater," the rest of the album is pretty much mush.
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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