Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Inoffensive Ani, Out Of Range Is Remarkably Average Folk-Rock Music.

The Good: A few good lyrics, Decent vocals, Interesting enough instrumentals.
The Bad: Not the most forceful or interesting songs, Short
The Basics: Out Of Range is a close recommend as it is inoffensive, but also uninteresting Ani DiFranco.

I wonder if many reviewers who catch releases right when they come out ever go back years later and re-evaluate the recordings they praised with experience that comes from years. I have been tempted to occasionally do that, but there are only so many hours in the day and going back to revise old reviews would be a full time job in and of itself in my case! But, often enough, artists go back and re-evaluate their earlier works from a place of perspective after a few years have passed and my experience has been that there have been albums that critics have highly praised that the artist will later admit that they were phoning in.

I mention this at the top of my review of Ani DiFranco's Out Of Range for no particular reason. My current female Artist Of The Month has never, to my knowledge, disavowed the album in any way or returned to it with critical words. But seeing how positively my fellow reviewers have rated it made me wonder how many might have reviewed as part of the hype back in the day. Listening to the album now on heavy replay, I find myself underwhelmed and at best I consider the album to be listenable, but ultimately unmemorable. On this album, Ani DiFranco moves more into the rock tradition from the folk-rock place she had been at and she sounds instrumentally decent, but largely inoffensive. This is an uncontroversial album and one that is good, but hard to consider exceptional in any way.

With only a dozen tracks (eleven songs as the title track of the album appears twice on it in electric and acoustic forms), Out Of Range is an unsatisfyingly short 47:52. Still, this 1994 incarnation of Ani DiFranco's is distinctly Ani. DiFranco, as is her tradition, wrote all of the songs and provides the lead vocals on each and every track. As well, DiFranco plays acoustic, electric and steel guitars depending upon the track. She also adds in her piano on "You Had Time" and that has a quiet, beautiful sound to it that is distinct on the album. Out Of Range was only co-produced by DiFranco (she gives her engineer Ed Stone a co-producer credit with her), but it still seems to be her musical vision being expressed on the album.

Whereas most Ani DiFranco albums are political, emotionally poignant and often enough challenge the establishment with their lyrics, with key lines being articulated for maximum offense to the prudes or squares she wants to rock the boat with, Out Of Range is a musical mush. This might well be the point in DiFranco's career where she began to produce her instrumentals over her vocals. This is ironic because on her earlier albums when she had something to say and she sang it with a sense of indignant anger against the world, she often performed her vocals with a nasal quality that was just terrible. Here, she is musical with her vocals, but she keeps the guitars and drums produced at such a volume that they are at or louder than her vocals. The result is that whatever her message is, it is hardly at the forefront as it is on other albums.

In other words, Ani DiFranco might have something to say on Out Of Range, but it all comes out as auditory mush that fails to make its mark on the listener. Indeed, this is fairly generic light pop-rock music that titillates the ears and then is easily forgotten. Unlike other albums, there are no starts and stops, no silences wherein DiFranco cries out and makes a grand point or emotional statement.

Vocally, DiFranco carries her notes. Only on the electric version of Out Of Range does she sing-speak as opposed to straight singing. DiFranco carries her voice in the alto and slightly lower range most the rest of the album and throughout one may hear her voice and she is musical. Unfortunately, she either mumbles or overproduces the instrumentals to keep the listener from being able to focus well on what she is singing. The result is that the instrumentals dominate.

As for the instrumentals, Out Of Range has a fairly rich sound . . . or at least as much as a guitar, bass, drums combo can have. Many tracks do not even have a bass, but songs like "Face Up And Sing" sound like they could have come from virtually any pop-rock artist who is playing the same three instruments. There is nothing truly imaginative, which is probably why "You Had Time" stands out on the album. Being a piano-driven track on an otherwise guitar-driven work is distinctive, if not impressive. But for a true understanding of how little impact the instrumentals make, listening to the album on constant replay, the acoustic and electric versions of the title track are so unimpressive in their differences that I often had to check the track number to see which one was playing!

As for the lyrics, the album is less political than DiFranco's earlier works, to be sure. This is a more personal album and the lyrics are generally less incredible than her other works as well. So, for example, despite the message of the song Out Of Range, with its lines "Boys get locked up in some prison / Girls get locked up in some house / And it don't matter if it's a warden / Or a lover / Or a spouse / You just can't talk to 'em / You just can't reason / You just can't leave / And you just can't please 'em," the song has a ridiculously repetitive quality to it. The song becomes monotonous within itself and on the album given the sense of repetition, making it a drag on the overall album.

On the plus side, DiFranco still has an interesting sense of imagery and metaphor. When she writes and sings "Life is a b movie / It's stupid and it's strange / A directionless story / And the dialogue is lame / But in the he said she said / Sometimes there's some poetry / If you turn your back long enough / And let it happen naturally" ("Hell Yeah") she creates a vivid concept that almost any listener can relate to. DiFranco captures the sound or feeling of disaffected youth quite well and that she does it without being noisy or obnoxious is pretty wonderful.

And it is not like DiFranco has abandoned her folk roots on this album. She still sings musical storysongs. However, some, like "The Diner" are arguably not her best. She pens the lines "I miss watching you / Drool on your pillow / I miss watching you / Pull on your clothes / I miss listening / To you in the bathroom / Flushing the toilet / Blowing your nose" ("The Diner") and they are repetitive, unenthusiastic and largely uninteresting, much like the rest of the album.

The album suffers most because Ani DiFranco is not focusing on her strengths, but there is little that is extraordinary or offensive, making this a remarkably average experience. The best track is "You Had Time." The low point is "If He Tries Anything."

For other Ani DiFranco works, please check out my reviews of:
Ani DiFranco
Not So Soft
Like I Said (Songs 1990-91)
Not A Pretty Girl
Living In Clip
Little Plastic Castle
Revelling / Reckoning


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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