Sunday, December 4, 2011

Two Discs Of Ani DiFranco Live, Living In Clip Continues To Underwhelm.

The Good: Vocals are decent, Lyrics, Quantity
The Bad: Musically underwhelming, Interstitials are tiresome.
The Basics: Disappointing for its mumbled conversational interstitials, unaudacious live performances of her songs and one bland cover, Living In Clip is hardly essential Ani DiFranco.

It is either appropriate or ironic that for my third Ani DiFranco album, I have made it up to a live album, in this case the two-disc Living In Clip celebration of Ani DiFranco live. I write this because my very first experience with Ani DiFranco's music was on the Indigo Girls live and obscure track album Rarities. So, this afternoon, I am feeling like I have more or less made it full circle with Ani DiFranco's music as I have made the journey back to my sense of her origins with Living In Clip. After all, virtually everyone who has ever tried to sell me on Ani DiFranco has declared - almost with the same almost cult-like wide-eyed enthusiasm, now that I think of it - "You HAVE to see her live!"

I tend to have general problems with "live" albums, to be perfectly honest. Unless the performance is a seminal collection in the career of a musical artist, live albums tend to fail - in my experiences - to capture the energy and enthusiasm of the actual event. I have a little more respect for artists who release a live album that is essentially a "best of" work, as Dar Williams did with Out There Live (reviewed here!) as this gives listeners both the best songs by an artist while not simply repeating them in a compilation of tracks fans likely already have. But based upon my multiple listens of Living In Clip, I am fairly certain that I would not enjoy an Ani DiFranco concert more than I enjoyed her studio albums.

Largely, my feelings of antipathy for DiFranco's concert style come from the presentations on Living In Clip. She giggles through telling a story on "Travel Plans" in a way that is either: 1. remarkably insecure, 2. completely high and/or 3. privy to some form of humor that is nowhere near as clever as she thinks it is. Other interstitials, where she tells stories, highlights band members or offers random thoughts on her songs or society, hold up poorly over multiple listens. Indeed, the fundamental problem with Living In Clip might well be that DiFranco's stories are so self-referential as to be problematic or dull upon more than one listen. After all, how many times can the listener find DiFranco's commentary on a review of her works interesting?

With thirty-one tracks on two discs, packing them in with sixteen songs at 65:58 on disc 1 and the remaining fifteen tracks occupying 59:57 of disc 2, Living In Clip is a collection of Ani DiFranco songs culled from at least twenty different performances. The songs are distinctly Ani DiFranco's, as she wrote all but one ("Amazing Grace"), and the tracks that are not songs appear to be her ad libs from on stage. Living In Clip presents Ani DiFranco as a folk-rock artist who is more than just a coffeehouse diva.

On "Living In Clip's" songs, DiFranco not only writes the words and music, but she performs all of the lead vocals. As well, she plays acoustic guitar and bass on various tracks and she does both adequately and often energetically. DiFranco also is credited as the producer of the album, so it is pretty much inarguable that this is her musical vision she is presenting.

Living In Clip feels like a collection and the songs are assembled in an order that neither lends to the feeling of a solid concert nor any particular theme. If anything, the theme is "This is Ani DiFranco!" Much of the album is mumbled, like the opening to "Hide And Seek," which is virtually indecipherable and becomes subsequently more annoying with each listen. DiFranco often laughs on her songs, as if privy to jokes while on stage that no one else is hearing. As is typical with "live" albums, Living In Clip includes the usual conceit of noises from the audience at strategic intervals as if to remind the listener "this is a live presentation!"

This is not to say that the whole album is a wash in terms of the sound of it. DiFranco have a beautiful voice on songs like "Joyful Girl" where her sound is mournful and sad. And as little as I enjoy "Tiptoe," she articulates it fast and well, making it understandable at the very least. Similarly, on "Both Hands," she puts to rest the idea that she cannot sing. She can and on that song, she is appropriately melancholy and emotive. The problem with much of the album is that rather than vocal range, she tries to make her voice sound strained and that sound, too, can be terribly repetitive and bland upon multiple listens. But when she tries, Living In Clip illustrates DiFranco can sing and be understood beautifully.

I suspect that the reason so many of my peers recommended Ani DiFranco to me was her lyrics. Generally, I enjoy DiFranco's lyrics and on Living In Clip, they are fairly well-presented, outside her complaining about reviews that challenge her becoming less political in her music or noting that the song she is singing is more of a song fragment ("Hide And Seek"). But DiFranco has something to say whether it is political or personal. So, for example, she sings about having confidence in relationships on songs like "32 Flavors" when she sings "Squint your eyes and look closer / I'm not between you and your ambition / I am a poster girl with no poster / I am thirty-two flavors and then some / And I'm beyond your peripheral vision / So you might want to turn your head / Cause someday you're going to get hungry / And eat most of the words you just said." She has decent diction and a forthright nature.

Largely, though, DiFranco is noted for her political lyrics and on Living In Clip, she does not shy away from that. Take "Every State Line," ("In Or Out") one of her more political songs. There, she wrote the lines "I got pulled over in west Texas / So they could look inside my car / He said "Are you an american citizen" / I said / "Yes sir / So far" / They made sure I wasn't smuggling / Someone in from Mexico / Someone willing to settle for America / 'Cause there's nowhere else to go " ("Every State Line") and she presents thoughts and concepts most other musical artists do not, which makes her music a refreshing change of pace. Indeed, at this point it is hard to imagine a rock song about illegal immigration!

Still, some of DiFranco's real musical power is in her lyrics on love and relationships. While the love song may be tired, her song "Both Hands" is a perfectly written love poem that one may return to again and again. Presented melodically on Living In Clip, DiFranco presents her poetry "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 / I am watching your chest rise and fall / Like the tides of my life, / And the rest of it all / And your bones have been my bedframe / And your flesh has been my pillow / I am waiting for sleep / To offer up the deep / With both hands" ("Both Hands") in a way that is memorable and filled with appropriate longing and desire. She is articulate in her need for love and she carries the song with a passion that is both uncommon, but evident from the words alone.

In the end, though, the best songs on Living In Clip are at least as good without the crowd noises and without the mumbled stories that precede them. DiFranco's studio presentations of the worthwhile tracks on this album sell themselves at least as well as the live versions. As a result, this album becomes too tough a sell, especially for the casual fans or those who are trying to find what it is that makes DiFranco so popular. Fans might get all gooey for this one, but those who objectively listen to music are likely to shake their heads after one listen (much less seven!) and put it back on the shelf.

The best tracks are "32 Flavors" (disc 1) and "Both Hands" (disc 2) and the low points are "Whatever" (the second track of it) (disc 1) and "Travel Tips" (disc 2).

For other former Female Artist Of The Month selections of mine, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Any Day Now - Joan Baez
My Love: Ultimate Essential Collection - Celine Dion
@#%&*! Smilers - Aimee Mann


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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