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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Ani DiFranco: Ani DiFranco


1) Both Hands; 2) Talk To Me Now; 3) The Slant; 4) Work Your Way Out; 5) Dog Coffee; 6) Lost Woman Song; 7) Pale Purple; 8) Rush Hour; 9) Fire Door; 10) The Story; 11) Every Angle; 12) Out Of Habit; 13) Letting The Tele­phone Ring.

Ani DiFranco is a poet. This is not surprising: few people in the state of New York aren't. It would be far more surprising if she were a stunningly original poet, a lyrical innovator capable of turning the entire decade upside down. At least, normally, when you release an entire album of original songs, heavy on the lyrics and light on instrumentation — nothing but her and her acou­stic guitar all the way through — you'd have to be stunningly original if you wished for one rea­son for such an album to be remembered one month after being released.

However, there is nothing stunningly original about Ani DiFranco's poetry. It is a fairly expecta­ble product of its times: an unpresuming offshoot of the beat genre that, at its best, adds little to the legacy of Suzanne Vega (which, in itself, was no gold mine) and, at its worst, is just... well, bad poetry. Most of the songs are about relationships, delivered from the obvious viewpoint — «the fact that I am a woman does not mean my inner world is in any way poorer than yours» — and dedicated to offering as many different proofs of this single fact as possible. Which means that reading the lyrics is sort of fun for the first song, sort of disappointing for the second song, sort of irritating for the third song, and sort of completely pointless from then on.

Which is entirely unrelated, by the way, to the fact that you do meet interesting concatenations of lexemes from time to time, such as 'I opened the fire door to four lips, none of which were mine', or 'Perpetrating counter-culture she is walking through the park', or 'It's not important to be defined, it's only important to use your time well' — here is a fine line for high school students to use as an epigraph for their generic essays — or 'I wonder what you look like under your T-shirt'... uh, okay, forget that last one. Although Ani's army of fans will probably rally with much more fer­vor around the doctrinal lines, such as 'I'm not going to sacrifice my freedom of choice' (about her abortion, of course) or 'When I'm approached in a dark alley, I don't lift my skirt' ('Talk To Me Now', the album's feminist anthem par excellence).

Nevertheless, if all there was to Ani DiFranco's debut record, self-released on her aptly titled «Righteous Babe» label, was mediocre poetry and by-the-book feminism, I would hardly bother to write about it. The real reason to listen to her records, even fully acoustic like this one, is the music. The songs, as «songs» in a traditional sense, do not really exist — they are bits of poetry that she does not so much sing as recite — but they are set to truly brilliant playing. This is not pop and not blues and not folk, but rather a weird, unpredictable amalgam of all kinds of styles, showing off a mindset unhampered by formulae, barriers, or conventions.

Well, probably the two big forces behind this are free-form jazz and dark folk, with a heavy pen­chant for staccato (to communicate the idea of this woman's «toughness», I guess), but, since they are both tamed into forming a light, rhythmic background for her recitals, they never come across as self-conscious genre exercises. Everything flows sort of naturally and unpretentiously, despite the use of «pretentious chords». And much of this is gracile and beautiful, like the thin, vulne­rable line that drives 'Talk To Me Now' (in strange contrast to the anthemic lyrics), or the nervous, ominous picking of 'Lost Woman Song'. Come to think of it, these two songs represent the two main patterns: light, pretty, nonchalant ('Pale Purple', 'Fire Door', 'Every Angle', 'Out Of Habit') and dark, paranoid, depressing ('Work Your Way Out', 'Letting The Telephone Ring'). But the actual melodies are different enough to count all these entities as different songs, and the overall result is so pleasing to the ear that it does not take long before you simply forget that the words she pronounces are supposed to make sense and just get carried away by the song waves. If you are into all that singer-songwriting-acoustic-playing shit at all, of course.

The only track that has to be pulped into oblivion is 'The Slant' — a recital that has no music at all. It is encountered at a very wrong moment, just as the ear settles down into the appropriate mo­de of converting the human voice into a musical instrument with all the semantics stripped away, yet 'The Slant' demands to get the semantics back, and, unless you are a fan of «serious modern poetry» in general and DiFranco's in particular, I would recommend throwing it out of the playlist at the insistence of The Committee To Prevent Unhealthy Disruption Effects. If you are a fan, of course, this one's for you, and, moreover, you are likely to get twice as much spiritu­al ecstasy from listening to Ani DiFranco as I am. Besides, I guess it's not such bad poetry, after all. Maybe it is just the lack of six-syllable words that bugs me. Thumbs up for the music, any­way.

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