ANI DIFRANCO: REVELLING / RECKONING (2001)
CD I: 1) Ain't That The Way; 2) O.K.; 3) Garden Of Simple; 4) Tamburitza Lingua; 5) Marrow; 6) Heartbreak Even; 7) Harvest; 8) Kazoointoit; 9) Whatall Is Nice; 10) What How When Where; 11) Fierce Flawless; 12) Rock Paper Scissors; 13) Beautiful Night; CD II: 1) Your Next Bold Move; 2) This Box Contains; 3) Reckoning; 4) So What; 5) Prison Prism; 6) Imagine That; 7) Flood Waters; 8) Grey; 9) Subdivision; 10) Old Old Song; 11) Sick Of Me; 12) Don't Nobody Know; 13) School Night; 14) That Was My Love; 15) Revelling; 16) In Here.
No one understood why Ani forgot to release a new studio album in 2000. An intentional refusal to join the happy crowds of artists cashing in on the «turn-of-the-millennium» chance? Or just one of nature's unpredictable errors? Fortunately, already the next year gave a clear answer: she was simply hoarding up material for a double release. Revelling/Reckoning is one hundred and twenty minutes of prime time Ani DiFranco, give or take a few.
The two parts are neatly divided into the Revelling and Reckoning parts (although, for some reason, both title tracks are asymmetrically placed in the second half). We'll get to the Revelling part a little later; afore everything, it needs to be said that your love and admiration for DiFranco will be put to the sorest, grizzliest test ever with Reckoning — one hour of arch-lazy, rambling, unmemorable acoustic tunes that aren't even so much tunes as raw mood pieces, envelopping endless streams of the lady's poetry.
It is time to confess here that I am not much of a poetry fan, with my own admiration strictly reserved to a handful of well-known greats; but I do concede that sometimes clever poetry, set to rudimentary muzak, can strike a deep chord — e. g., Leonard Cohen. Yet even Cohen allowed himself to stoop to the level of us mortals by molding his poetry in a pop music format, which never ever hurt it, but, instead, made it more poignant. And, occasionally, so did DiFranco. But not here. Play 'Both Hands' next to any of these musical embryos — embryos? nay, blastulae rather — and if this is «maturation» or «artistic progression», I renounce «art» forever.
"How sick of me must you be by now?" asks she the provocative question midway through the acoustic bog. Of course, it's a personal, one-to-one song about relationships rather than a taunt to potential or disenchanted fans, but we are all in this game, and, personally, Reckoning makes me pretty sick. «You have to be in the proper mood for it», the fans say in their reviews, but I cannot envision a mood in which I'd ever want to put on this record instead of Ani's magnificent — in comparison — debut album, let alone miriads of more passionate, more cleverly designed, more musical acoustic experiences from singer-songwriters all over the globe. Balderdash.
The first half of the album is, however, a different story. It is much more fleshed out, less minimalistic, and continues more in the vein of unpretentious folk-jazz-fusion of Little Plastic Castle than the formulaic «liberal gung-ho» trash of To The Teeth. There is even a mildly funny musical joke number ('What How When Where'), whose funny looping of every monosyllabic question word found in the English language may make you smile and whose friendly acoustic / brass interplay will reassure you that she still knows how to write real songs, even though the liberal arts devil is permanently swaying her off the right track.
Upbeat constructions like 'Ain't That The Way', 'O.K.', and 'Fierce Flawless' are nothing to write home about, but nice and listenable; mood pieces like 'Tamburitza Lingua' are much better developed than any of the mood pieces on Reckoning (as simple as its acoustic melody is, it's a frickin' melody, well assisted by creepy sci-fi whoooosh! blasts in the background); and only a few of the numbers match the yawn power of Reckoning ('Marrow', 'Garden Of Simple'). In short, Revelling gives the impression of a real, if somewhat stagnated, album, while Reckoning gives the impression of an afterthought... «oh, wait a minute guys, I still got those two poetry-filled notebooks, if I don't do something with them right now, the world's spiritual heritage may not be deemed complete by the next generation... how much studio time have we got left, anyway?»
Plus, I intentionally refuse to comment on any of the lyrics on here — if only for the reason that, for every subject and statement, you can already find an earlier one that is at least equally well, if not better, expressed. Political and social statements; psychological one-sided conversations with boyfriends and girlfriends; random life observations converted into cosmic metaphors, you know the drift. At this point, I am no longer able to take all that verbosity seriously.
To sum up, if Little Plastic Castle showed some musical promise, what with all the cautious jazz-funk experimentation and stuff, Revelling, at best, runs on inertia, and, at worst, drives into a wall; whereas Reckoning is easily the least rewarding DiFranco listening experience up to this point — at least To The Teeth has its pragmatic use at propaganda rallies. Overall, a predictable thumbs down, although 'What How When Where' is one of her funnest creations. (And if you are an admirer, determined to scorn me for choosing this lengthy album's one joke tune as the best song on it, hey, that's hardly my fault. Blame the author, I say).