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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Ani DiFranco: So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter


CD I: 1) Swan Dive; 2) Letter To A John / Tambouritza Lingua; 3) Grey; 4) Cradle And All; 5) Whatall Is Nice; 6) What How When Where; 7) To The Teeth; 8) Revelling; 9) Napoleon; 10) Shrug; 11) Welcome To; CD II: 1) Comes A Time; 2) Ain't That The Way; 3) Dilate; 4) Gratitude; 5) 32 Flavors; 6) Loom / Pulse; 7) Not A Pretty Girl; 8) Self Evident; 9) Reckoning; 10) My IQ; 11) Jukebox; 12) You Had Time; 13) Rock Paper Scissors.

To summarize the lacklustre fizzle-out of the second stage of Ani's career, up comes a fittingly lacklustre live album whose main purpose is to show that the lady has learned to be just as obno­xious and boring onstage as she is in the studio — even if she herself has always said that she felt far more comfortable playing live than recording.

"I don't know why the fuck I play acoustic guitar, I hate that acoustic guitar sound", she greets us on the very first track, producing a louder-than-necessary first chord. A funny, innocent joke, but gruesomely symbolic: many people, no doubt, will want to ask the same question upon compa­ring the bland minimalist acoustic blabber of her XXIst century sound with the awesome style that she used to have years ago and that is still, in bits and pieces, evident on Living In Clip. The setlist for this particular show conveniently drops everything prior to 1994 (with the lonesome ex­ception of 'Gratitude' from Not So Soft, only proving the rule), and focuses intently upon her last three albums, with the top share of the cake going to Reckoning / Revelling.

Ani's little jazz-funk band does a faithful job of keeping up, and they may even be enjoying the proceedings, but it is hard to guess, because the emphasis is on staying fairly close to the quiet, restrained arrangements on the originals, with next to no jamming or improvisation pieces at all. Actually, it doesn't look like she is in great need of the band at all. Most of the songs from the la­test album, for instance, come from the Revelling part, i. e. introspective underwritten acoustic ballads that find little use for the talents of Ravi Best, trumpet, Shane Endsley, trumpet, Todd Horton, trumpet, Daren Hahn, drums, Jason Mercer, bass, Hans Teuber, clarinet, Julie Wolf, keyboards, vocals. (Ani's interaction with Julie is supposed to form some integral artistic part in the structuring of the second CD, subtitled Girls' Singing Night, but the whole thing never really goys far beyond a little dueting, a trifle backing vocals, and some mildly humorous banter).

To put it bluntly, the good tunes have nothing more to say than they did in the confines of the stu­dio, and sometimes less ('Napoleon' and 'What How When Where', in particular, suffer greatly from the lack of studio gimmickry that used to make one pay any attention to them in the first place). Then there are the bad tunes, of which there are many; I find the setlist quite depressing, to be honest — and previewing some numbers off the upcoming Evolve is hardly a profitable bu­siness, either, given the ever-continuing nosedive on that album as well.

But none of this sucks as much as the decision to dedicate a large chunk of the record to nausea­ting political propaganda. It is not enough that she recreates the seven-and-a-half minute torture of 'To The Teeth' in its entirety; one of the new numbers ('Self Evident') is a nine-minute rant on the evils of American politics, spewed off in a quasi-improvised (actually, quite carefully rehear­sed, I think) manner to a boring lounge jazz background.

Let us get this straight: I am aware, and everyone should be, that the lady's schtick is to combine music with social work, and that, if, like Alice Cooper, you believe music and politics should ne­ver mingle, you should stay away from artists like Ani altogether. I do not share that belief; I have no problem with John Lennon singing 'Power To The People' or with people like John Fo­gerty or Robert Smith or Neil Young writing anti-Bush diatribes and setting them to music. After all, music is feelings, and, if you make good music, why should you be confining your feelings to girls, cars, and transcendental meditation instead of expressing your position on relevant issues?

But it is a different thing altogether if you sacrifice music in favor of political propaganda. If the lady believes her true mission is to go out there on stage and enflame people's hearts against the NRA and George W. Bush and the whored-out media etc. etc., that's fine; declare this a political rally and leave your guitar at home. 'Self Evident' is not even poetry — it starts out innocently enough ("Us people are just poems, we are 90% metaphor..."), but pretty soon derails into a series of platitudes with the legions of supporters howling in unison in all the appropriate stops. I will ad­mit, though, that some of the lines, e. g. "Take away our playstations and we are a third world nation", are brilliant. That is the most I can admit.

In toto, re: the album title, there is, indeed, plenty of shouting — on behalf of all the hardcore De­mocrats in the audience that merely dropped in to check if the sun were still shining, or whether DiFranco was still going strong against the NRA, which is approximately the same thing — and there is plenty of laughter, too, mostly on behalf of Ani herself, who is occasionally trying to de­flate the ser­mon aspect of it all by giggling like the quintessential schoolgirl (I find the contrast cringeworthy, but that's just me). What is seriously lacking in between all the shouting and all the laughter is any sort of viable reason why the heck this woman is still being defined as a «singer, guitarist, and songwriter», when she is doing her best to effectively sabotage all three of these aspects. Thumbs down, egads. At this stage, apparently even Robert Christgau gave up on her (formerly a major fan, he hasn't written one single review of any of her albums since 2002).

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