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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Ani DiFranco: Dilate


1) Untouchable Face; 2) Outta Me Onto You; 3) Superhero; 4) Dilate; 5) Amazing Grace; 6) Napoleon; 7) Shame­less; 8) Done Wrong; 9) Going Down; 10) Adam And Eve; 11) Joyful Girl.

Dilate put Ani on the mainstream charts, the low-to-mid ranges of which she has never left since, but just how much of her own merit went into this is debatable; the main reason for this increa­sed popularity is, I believe, that she simply fell in with the wave of interest towards the «Angry Young Female Singer-Songwriter» crowds popularized by Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill just a few months before Dilate hit the stores. In fact, quite a few people have gone on record comparing Ani's confessional blurts on here with Alanis' style — "isn't it ironic" (to quote Alanis herself), considering that DiFranco had been doing that schtick for half a decade already?

It helps that Dilate, again, returns to a fuller sound, with Ani herself handling electric guitar du­ties, and also adding bass, synthesizers, and organs where she sees fit. This makes her 'Napoleon' sound a little bit Neil Young-ish (the dry guitar crackle is not unlike the one that sets up the mood for 'Down By The River'), and her 'Going Down' a little bit psychedelic — the lyrics may suggest that it is merely a song about being dumped by yet another male chauvinist pig, but the carefully measured effects do really create an aura of slowly descending into a bottomless shaft, and the more you listen to it, the more you are prone to creeping yourself out.

So, either it is the reentrance of variegated arrangements, or there are some real improvements on the melody side (with Ani, it is always hard to tell), but, in my view, Dilate brings back some confidence in her use as an artist, much as this view is opposite to those that think DiFranco is al­ways at her best when it's just her, her guitar, and the latest version of her agenda. Her interpreta­tion of 'Amazing Grace', contrasting the actual singing with somebody reciting the verses in a dull, disinterested manner over the phone, is fresh and thought-provoking, despite being horrendously drawn out (not even the President of the United States could stand seven minutes of it, let alone the mere mortals). Her singing on 'Done Wrong' nears beautiful. And her trademark "fuck you" on 'Untouchable Face' must have taken quite a bit of polishing during rehearsals — it perfectly cap­tures the presupposition of «I used to be patient with you, but even the strongest kind of pa­tience has its limits, so I have no choice but to take a shortcut here» that one witnesses quite of­ten in movies, but, for some strange reason, almost never in music.

To make things even brighter, Dilate heavily cuts down both on anthemic statements and shock­ing verbal imagery — certainly not because she is selling out to the Alanis Morissette crowd (for that matter, Jagged Little Pill was all about anthemic statements and ugly impressions), but be­cause she is... growing up? Note that, with the understandable exception of 'Amazing Grace', each song on the album has a «YOU», and that «YOU» is mostly in the singular; as much as I feel un­comfortable about spying on other people's relationships, I'd rather prefer to be let in on these se­crets of the soul than listen to yet another not-a-pretty-girl kind of rallying. Besides, these respon­seless dialogs become less and less annoying with each new album — and the lyrics for some­thing like 'Adam And Eve' are downright complex and open for quite a variety of interpretations, e. g. such lines as "I just happen to like apples / And I am not afraid of snakes" put a new twist on the Genesis morals that is well worth considering.

As per custom, from about one third to one half of the album is fillerish, but if we «stoop to her level», like the anti-hero of 'Adam And Eve', the fresh, interesting part still guarantees a thumbs up. Serious critics may, and will, sneer at the general public that only opened its eyes to DiFranco after having been goaded by the inferior presence of Alanis, but at least Dilate proudly deserves each and every one of its 480,000 sold copies, which I could hardly say about Pill's 33 million.


  1. Buffalonian here--Ani is certainly talented.
    ZERO comparison to Alanis--very few will
    ever be able to do what she did in terms of
    poignancy, timing (Gen X women were hungry for this)
    and overall candid-I-don't-give-a-bleep lyrics.
    Ani is good, but Alanis and JLP will always be legendary in my mind!
    Zero comparison.

  2. Hi George,

    Long time reader, first time commenter!

    I was curious to see whether Dilate would get the thumbs up or down. I always had the impression that you weren't the biggest fan of "breakup" albums, and Ani's recent track record in your reviews (three consecutive thumbs down!), wasn't particularly hot, either. So I was pleasantly surprised when you awarded it a thumbs up!

    (To be fair, I have a couple of Ani's albums prior to Dilate, but I've never bothered to listen to them... so they may indeed be deserving of the ratings awarded to them).

    Okay, so it's not the most welcoming album. Not every song has a particularly memorable melody. The production job on Outta Me, Onto You makes an angry song sound wussy. (The "no no no!" backing vocals in that song are irritating as hell, too). Napoleon, despite being a bit of a favourite of mine, is far too long (six and a half minutes?!)... and I prefer the live version with the bigger band and horns on So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter.

    But I like Dilate a lot, and to me, it feels quite powerful. It gives off lots of strong emotions throughout. (Or fakes them pretty well *shrugs*). It comes through in Ani's voice: it can be so ragged, unhinged and raw at times. Like at the end of Adam and Eve: it's pretty uncomfortable to hear her howling about how "ignorance is bliss". Sure, you were referring to the lyrics when you remarked about being uncomfortable "spying on other people's relationships", but I think it also extends to the delivery: it can be a tad awkward to listen to someone who sounds so wounded and miserable, and also so seething and venemous.

    The album also works really well as a whole: it almost plays out like a progression of emotions following the whole "getting your lame ass dumped" bit, and finishes with the the acceptance of it on the peaceful Joyful Girl. I don't agree with your one-third to one-half is fillerish assessment: there's enough variety throughout and usually something to like and enjoy about each song (though not every song is a winner). As for individual songs, the rather dark title track is my personal favourite: the jarring, droning chords, wailing backing vocals and swirling organ, all go really well together. Some really great lyrics, too. Close second is the very pretty Done Wrong, which has a very nice chorus... and some more howling in the coda. As for other songs... Amazing Grace is a tad long, but is a nice interlude from all of the angst. Superhero has entertaining lyrics. Shameless is funky and sleazy (the botched intro is amusing, too). Going Down is creepy. And so on.

    Of the albums I've heard, it's not her best album, (that's probably Knuckle Down), but it sticks out in my mind and it's definitely a favourite.

    Anyway, that's enough rambling from me! Looking forward to seeing your future Ani reviews: I have most of her following albums, so it'll be interesting to see how your opinions compare to mine. Hmmm... what will you think of Knuckle Down and To the Teeth?

    - Brad

    P.S. It's great to see you reviewing again!