ANI DIFRANCO: LITTLE PLASTIC CASTLE (1998)
1) Little Plastic Castles; 2) Fuel; 3) Gravel; 4) As Is; 5) Two Little Girls; 6) Deep Dish; 7) Loom; 8) Pixie; 9) Swan Dive; 10) Glass House; 11) Independence Day; 12) Pulse.
Welcome to the world of soft jazz. It is almost frightening how consistently mellow this album is — almost bordering on «adult contemporary» in a few spots, and completely jettisoning the indie-rock flourishes of Dilate as if they never existed. Maybe she was feeling «trapped» in that aesthetics, or perhaps everything is much simpler: a couple friendly drinks at the bar with a few local jazz musicians and presto, all of a sudden your affection for the trombone has grown three hundred percent overnight.
Regardless, for Ani's level, this is her «easy listening» album. Unfortunately, in the light of her modest songwriting talents, it translates as «possessing very little staying power». Dilate was good when it was flashing out its sharp edges, song after song; Plastic Castle patiently smoothes out all these edges until the whole environment becomes thoroughly child-safe — and unpalatable to those with more capricious tastes.
The album's major piece is, of course, 'Pulse'. Starts off as a tender, caring ballad (one of those rare displays of pure human emotion untainted by feminist reasoning), then, several minutes later, becomes a late-night jazz jam / lullaby with guest star Jon Hassell contributing a lengthy trombone solo. The music sits firmly three feet away from the line that separates «pretty» from «gorgeous», but there is a modestly introspective quality about it that would immediately brand anyone who'd try to dismiss the whole thing with the seal of cynicism. Technically, Ani's band does a great job on the piece, so much so that they almost threaten to turn her into but one of the essential components of the whole thing. (Not that I would mind).
As for the actual songs — there is the faraway nastiness of the acoustic riff on 'Pixie', and the zydeco flourishes on the title track are pleasant when they arrive to drag this ballad out of its languishing mediocrity, and the studio version of 'Gravel' is as sharply staccato-driven as the live version; but, of course, her Grammy Award nomination came for 'Glass House', the album's fullest-sounding song and also one of the blandest, a generic indie-rock angst number. (Guess it was at least loud enough for the Grammy people to notice). Really, what's to discuss? This is just Ani, a little calmer than usual. But still coming up with the regular verbal bliss: "May their souls rest easy now that lynching has been frowned upon / And we've moved to the electric chair".
Feel free to give it a thumbs up if you are one of those late-night wine-glass candle-light soft-porn types, with 'Pulse' right up your alley, of if you are one of those types who think that guitar distortion is nothing but pretentious uglification and that the sax-and-brushes thing is really where it's at. From my own point of view, I'd rather abstain.