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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Ani DiFranco: Not So Soft


1) Anticipate; 2) Rockabye; 3) She Says; 4) Make Me Stay; 5) On Every Corner; 6) Small World; 7) Not So Soft; 8) Roll With It; 9) Itch; 10) Gratitude; 11) The Whole Night; 12) The Next Big Thing; 13) Brief Bus Stop; 14) Looking For The Holes.

Perhaps this is just my problem, but, for as long as I can remember, I have always felt a strong alergy towards those brands of art that place agenda and propaganda above the force and style of artistic expression. (Growing up in the Soviet Union did not exactly help relieve that alergy, too). There is nothing inherently wrong about the mere presence of agenda in one's art, because, well, if you strongly believe in something, you'd have to be a superhuman not to share those beliefs with non-believers in your art. But if the agenda starts overwhelming you, you're in trouble.

Not So Soft is different from Ani DiFranco in two crucial respects. First: the music, at least the way I seem to discern it, is generally simpler, folkier, and more predictable than it used to be. Se­cond: the lyrics are about five or six times as socially charged as we heard them last time. On Ani DiFranco, the artist concocted hypnotizing sonic waves, occasionally stuffing them with thin slices of «fight-for-your-right» that performed their job on an almost subconscious level. Not So Soft is totally true to its title: the stuffing has burst through the skin and corrupted the sonic wa­ves to the point where I, for one, cannot possibly enjoy them at all.

Some day, when all of humanity has reached some sort of advanced, StarTrek-ian conscience le­vel, people will look back at this and wonder what it was all about. «So», they will say, «this wo­man wanted men to treat her like a human being instead of a sexual object. So she liked to insist upon her right to freedom of creative expression. So she dropped direct hints about there being nothing wrong whatsoever about being bisexual. So why not just put up a memorial plaque on the street where she lived, and go listen to some Ted Nugent instead? Hey, at least that guy kicked some solid ass back in those days! And he was FUNNY, too!»

I totally solidarize with Ani's feelings, and admit that the songs on Not So Soft work pretty damn good as ballsy feminist propaganda. The words cut, the voice bursts out of the chest, the guitar strings twist, ring and creak as if they were needles driven with full force under the fingernails of the lady's male adversaries. For instance, on 'Itch', she squeezes the line 'I am scratching at my con­sciousness like a bitch with fleas' from between her teeth as if she were a bitch with fleas, and the admirable touch of imitating real scratching with a little percussion effect as she chants the refrain 'Yours was the hardest itch to relieve' throws even more fuel on the fire.

But why must I discuss this stuff, and what should I say? «Uh, yeah, nice work asserting that bi­sexuality on 'The Whole Night' — quite a slap in the face of them bigots and chauvinists». I am far more worried about the fact that the music behind this only exists to give her a rhythmic back­ground, nothing else. In fact, there is only one song here that I would consider «musically intere­sting» — 'Anticipate', boldly rolling along on a strong bluesy loop. The rest are, at best, retreads of chord structures already explored the previous year, and, at worst, a waste of finger tissue.

Oh, it is true, as William Ruhlmann of the All-Music Guide reminds us, that some things are new, like the (overdubbed) vocal harmonies on some choruses and «the occasional bit of percussion» (wow, that is some musical growth). He also says that Ani «plays her guitar more fluidly»; I am not sure what this means, but «fluidly» is a nice word, and, evidently, a serious artist is supposed to be playing his/her guitar more and more «fluidly» with each new album, at least until he/she has finally jumped the shark and lost the ability to receive more than two stars from the All-Mu­sic Guide. Maybe, in this particular case, «fluidly» is supposed to mean that she makes much less use of the stop-and-start broken structure that was so frequent on Ani DiFranco, and does not rely as heavily on her nervous, jagged, staccato style. Well, goddammit, I liked that style. Most of the songs on here sound like boring folk demos instead.

That's just me, and just my thumbs down, of course. Perhaps it is simply the sudden outgrowth of the FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT schtick that got me down and hid Ani's true musical advances from my ears. But it is also not excluded that, for some people, it is exactly that schtick that counts as a true musical advance. I don't know about that. Next thing you know, she's a great musician be­cause she got a tattoo on her breastplate. That's gotta count for something, too, right?

1 comment:

  1. I have her entire discography: about 80% of them is Tori Amos without the melodies. It would take a while until this stubborn lady starts making her music more interesting. But once she gets there, the exotic jazz-folk hybrid is pretty darn good (e.g. "Here For Now" from Evolve).