The Good: Moments of voice, Moments of production, Moments of lyrics
The Bad: Thematically dull, Instrumentally dull, Poor replayability
The Basics: While Ani DiFranco overcomes some of her musical and vocal limitations, Not A Pretty Girl is more self-promotional than audacious in its statements.
As I leap into Ani DiFranco as my Artist Of The Month, I am pleased to discover that I am not part of some brainwashed hive mind. After all, virtually every subculture has artists who the majority of that subculture seem to rally around. In the feminist and lesbian, gay, bisexual subculture, there seems to be an assumption that the ultimate c.d. collection will include some works by Ani DiFranco. Until now, mine has not. Given my experiences with DiFranco thus far, with Not So Soft (reviewed here!) and now Not A Pretty Girl, DiFranco is not making it into my permanent collection anytime soon!
Prior to April when I started immersing myself in the music of Ani DiFranco, I had only heard of Ani DiFranco and heard her on one of the Indigo Girls songs (one of their live albums I reviewed) and backing Dar Williams on her cover of "Comfortably Numb" on the Dar Williams album My Better Self. So, I was ignorant of Ani DiFranco's music and if I was not indifferent to her works, I was actually biased toward her because so many of my peers had recommended DiFranco to me given my affinity for artists like Dar Williams, Heather Nova, Sophie B. Hawkins, Annie Lennox and Joan Baez. But two albums into my study of Ani DiFranco, I'm still looking for the spark. DiFranco has a clear social message and the vocals on Not A Pretty Girl are a vast improvement over the vocals on her earlier album I listened to, but still . . . there is a sense of style and charisma lacking from this album that leaves me feeling indifferent at best to DiFranco's works.
With only fourteen tracks (there is a fifteenth track which is a few seconds of dead air) clocking in at 59:07, Not A Pretty Girl is not a bad use of the c.d. medium, nor is it a bad example of the artistry of Ani DiFranco, at least not of where she was in 1995 when this album was released. Ani DiFranco wrote all fourteen of the songs and she performed lead vocals on all of the songs as well. In addition, she played guitar and bass on the various songs. As well, she produced the album, so this is her own style, sound and message being presented on Not A Pretty Girl.
Largely, the sound is more developed, more produced and more enjoyable than her earlier albums (at least the ones I have heard so far) and DiFranco should be given credit for developing as a musical artist in the five years since her debut. Far from remaining thematically or musically stagnant, DiFranco on Not A Pretty Girl shows real progress from where she was, launching the album to "average" from the "utterly unpleasant" I had encountered on earlier works. The thing is, achieving average is hardly an achievement and while others laud this album as a masterpiece, as I have listened to it on high rotation the last two days, I find myself far less impressed by it.
However, DiFranco seems to have overcome two of her biggest early-album limitations: those being her voice and musical monotony. The vocals on Not A Pretty Girl are actually musical. Gone is the plaintive wail of her early albums and songs like "Shy" mix an actual melody carried by DiFranco's voice with more aggressive vocals that border on shouting. She is both articulate and melodic on songs like "Worthy," "Sorry I Am," and "32 Flavors." This does not mean she has completely departed from her style of speaking many of her lyrics. The live version of "Tiptoe," an uncredited addition to the fourteenth track - whereas some sources say there ought to be a live version of "32 Flavors" - is just plain awful as a result of DiFranco repeating the short "Tiptoe" lyrics three or four times. The album suffers on frequent replay because that final track appears so close to the studio incarnation of the song, so when it keeps coming up, the listener gets sick of the lines pretty fast.
As well, DiFranco no longer seems limited by exactly what she is: one woman with a guitar. On Not A Pretty Girl, DiFranco mixes in bass and percussion lines (she has accompaniment on this album!) and as a result has a richer sound. No longer does DiFranco sound like she is the lone woman in the coffee house crying out for attention. Perhaps now she has graduated to the smoky bar set on open mike night. The thing is, while she is no longer limited by the stark, repetitive sound she was trapped in on her earlier albums, she seems quite content to get into the guitar, bass, drums rut and stay there without pushing the envelope within that niche at all. In other words, she escapes a terrible, tiresome niche for one that is richer, but is presented somewhat repetitively on this album.
What seems to sell Ani DiFranco's albums, though, is her lyrics. Given that the entire album is written by Ani DiFranco, this is not something she ought to have any problem with. Socially conscious and generally articulate (she mumbles her way through most of the lines to her song "Light Of The Some Kind"), DiFranco takes on a wide array of emotional and social issues, most of which are focused on women's issues and minority/subculture voices. So, for example, it is unsurprising that DiFranco's bent takes her to a place where she is articulating "Tiptoeing through the used condoms / Strewn on the piers / Off the west side highway / Sunset behind the skyline of Jersey / Walking towards the water / With a fetus holding court in my gut / My body highjacked / My tits swollen / I'm sore" ("Tiptoe"); this is hardly a mainstream set of lyrics, but DiFranco fearlessly goes there. And her sense of imagery, while arguably not tasteful, is certainly vivid.
As well, she does have a strong feminine voice and that is something that ought to be celebrated whenever it is encountered. DiFranco is shamelessly uncompromising in her feminine strength and that is a welcome change from many female artists. Unfortunately, on songs like Not A Pretty Girl (the single, not the album), she mixes the empowering with the self-congratulatory, with lines like "I am not a pretty girl / That is not what I do / I ain't no damsel in distress / And I don't need to be rescued . . . [GREAT!] And generally my generation / Wouldn't be caught dead working for the man / And generally I agree with them / Trouble is you gotta have yourself an alternate plan / And I have earned my disillusionment / I have been working all of my life / And I am a patriot / I have been fighting the good fight" (Not A Pretty Girl). DiFranco is a decent feminist, but too many of her lyrics are occupied with an indignant sense that she isn't getting enough credit for being one. That is something that I tire of listening to rather quickly.
As well, on the album Not A Pretty Girl, DiFranco has a few poetic misses. Songs like "The Million That You Never Made" are repetitive and boring while masquerading with an angry sound. More than that, tracks like "Asking Too Much" have some mediocre rhymes and are low on message other than self-promotion. When DiFranco sings ". . . Because if you hear me talking / Listen to what I'm not saying / If you hear me playing guitar / Listen to what I'm not playing" ("Asking Too Much") it fails to engage those not part of her loyal fanbase. Indeed, whenever I hear music - even songs with dense lyrics, a la R.E.M. - I want to hear what the artist has to say, not imagine all that they may or may not be implying or insinuating. If you have a message, say it! On Not A Pretty Girl, too much of DiFranco's message is just "I am Ani DiFranco (hear me roar!)."
In short, even though Not A Pretty Girl might have a leg up on other Ani DiFranco albums, there are still vastly better rock, pop-rock, folk-rock and alternative albums by female artists or artists in general on the market to invest in.
The best track is the melodic "Hour Follows Hour," the low point is "The Million You Never Made."
For other, former, female Artist Of The Month offerings, please visit my reviews of:
Hits And Rarities - Sheryl Crow
Beginnings - Shania Twain
Break Every Rule - Tina Turner
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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