The Good: There is a lot of music, One or two lyrics
The Bad: Instrumentally overproduced, Bland singing.
The Basics: Despite a decent mix of musical styles, Ani DiFranco fails to wow with the two-disc Revelling/Reckoning, in part by saying little, in part by obscuring what she does sing.
As I look to burn through the last of my current female Artist Of The Month's c.d.s that I have in stock, I find myself contemplating the body of Ani DiFranco's works. DiFranco came to me highly recommended as I tend to have a strong love of female singer-songwriters. In her early works, I discovered an artist with a powerful social message who was severely limited on the musical front. Her "one woman and a guitar" sound quickly grew tired to my ears as I played her early albums on high replay. As well, her singing voice was often annoying and nasal to the point of being unlistenable.
With her two-disc set Revelling and Reckoning, Ani DiFranco overcomes yet again many of the early limitations of her music. Unfortunately, on this two-disc set, she runs almost to the other end of the spectrum. Here, DiFranco produces her way out of anything listenable or comprehensible on a great number of her songs. Given that DiFranco wrote and produced the album, this once again raises the question of why she would bother. Why write something, why operate with enough passion to strike out on your own with something to say if you don't want people to understand it?! Over the course of the scattered two-disc set, DiFranco plays in multiple musical styles in a way that sounds more sloppy than artistic, more indecisive than stylistic and the end result is an album that could have come from any number of pop-rock artists, as opposed to a true independent who is doing her own thing.
With twenty-nine tracks coming in at just under two hours of music, Revelling/Reckoning is certainly one of DiFranco's most ambitious original efforts. Revelling has thirteen tracks (58:59) and Reckoning is endowed with sixteen tracks (59:11), all of which are written by Ani DiFranco. DiFranco provides lead vocals on all of the songs and she plays most of the instruments as well. On these two albums, DiFranco plays acoustic, electric and baritone guitars, various drums, the key bass, and tambur. In fact, the only instrument on the album she does not play is the saxophone and only one other artist appears on the albums to provide backing vocals. So, DiFranco clearly has instrumental abilities which have overcome her early limited sound. As well, the album is produced by Ani DiFranco, so it is inarguable that this is not her own musical vision and that these albums were not the albums she wanted to make.
Vocally, there is little to say about Revelling/Reckoning. DiFranco sings within a pretty limited range on the albums, mostly in the alto registers. She sing-speaks her way through most of the songs, but more troubling than her voice - which is not nasal on the songs for a change - is that it is almost inaudible. DiFranco managed to producer her vocals such that they cannot be heard in many cases. They are blended with other people's vocals on songs like the album opener "Ain't That The Way."
To be fair, DiFranco does challenge her prior ranges stylistically and vocally on Revelling/Reckoning. She has a more funk/goove sound on "O.K.," waltzes through "Marrow" and presents a pretty average folk-rock performance on "Kazoointoit." She even has something of a rap on "Ain't That The Way." But the problem DiFranco runs into is that just because she is experimenting with various musical styles does not mean she is succeeding with her experiments. So, for example, the rap on "Ain't That The Way" is virtually impossible to listen to, it is so lame.
Instrumentally, Revelling/Reckoning scores points for diversity and range of instrumentals. DiFranco is not limited by any one musical style on these albums either, making it virtually impossible to classify this work as simply "folk-rock." It is not pop-rock, either, as it was never popular. "Whatall Is Nice" has a classic folk sound to it, but it is definitely the exception to the rule. Revelling/Reckoning is a hodgepodge of various musical styles and while some artists can pull off such collections of genres as intriguing albums, this pair of albums does not have the cohesion or quality to be considered truly great. Instead, it comes across as sloppy and the listener is more likely to be bored than fascinated by DiFranco and her attempt.
Moreover, after listening to the albums on high replay for days, I cannot identify a single tune. There are no recognizable or memorable melodies on either album and the result is that while there are many styles reflected in the work, there is nothing so memorable as to call the listener back to these albums. Ever.
Which brings us to the lyrics. Outside of having most of the lyrics obscured by production which more often than not puts the instrumentals in front of the vocals in distracting ways (the deeper chords of the instrumentals on "Whatall Is Nice" drown out the vocals, despite the intensity which which DiFranco sings them), the lyrics are not all of DiFranco's best. In fact, off the first album, after a dozen listens, the only lines that I remember immediately are the title question words to the song "What How When Where (Why Who)," and I recall them mostly because they annoyed me.
But songs like "Reckoning" seem more loaded with predictable metaphors than the imaginative ones DiFranco traditionally used. When DiFranco sings "I've replayed a thousand times exactly what was said. / 'Cause nothing is as it appears / And the fun house mirrors of your fears / On a roller coaster of all these years / With your hands above your head /And win or lose, just that we chose, this little war is what kills us" ("Reckoning"), I find myself more bored than enlightened. This is not a fresh way of discussing conflict at all and fans are likely to expect more from DiFranco than they get here.
This is not to say that DiFranco is devoid of her usual social commentary. On "Subdivision," for example, she pens and performs the lines "White people are so scared of black people / They bulldoze out to the country, and put up houses on little loop-d-loop streets / And while america gets its heart cut right out of its chest, the berlin wall still runs down main street / Separating east side from west" which are certainly not lines one hears in most pop-rock songs. DiFranco deserves some credit for continuing to try to challenge the establishment and the presumed order of things. It used to be, though, listeners could understand what she was singing when she did. It's fairly frustrating to listen intently to DiFranco only to get simple, obvious metaphors on light and dark.
The result is a two-disc set that is easy to pass by. Revelling/Reckoning disappoints. Period.
For other Ani DiFranco works, please check out my reviews of:
Not So Soft
Like I Said (Songs 1990-91)
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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