ANI DIFRANCO: UP UP UP UP UP UP (1999)
1) 'Tis Of Thee; 2) Virtue; 3) Come Away From It; 4) Jukebox; 5) Angel Food; 6) Angry Any More; 7) Everest; 8) Up Up Up Up Up Up; 9) Know Now Then; 10) Trickle Down; 11) Hat Shaped Hat.
"I'm not angry any more", she says, "we learn like the trees how to bend". The song, 'Angry Any More', is a fairly important piece — if it is not tricking us, then it allows us to take a peek at where all of the aggression and suffering come from. (Freud, of course, would have a field day). But even more significantly, it has to be taken as a sort of manifesto, that the uncontrolled angst and rage have been gotten over and from now on we are going to see intelligence tempering hot emotions instead of being yoked by them. At least, that's what we are promised; it would be unreasonable to expect someone like Ani to keep those promises, though.
Musically, this is not much different from Little Plastic Castle: partly soft acoustic stuff, partly quiet jazz stuff that veers between lounge and avantgarde without bothering to spell out the difference in a distinct way. The soft acoustic stuff is predictably elegant, sometimes begging to be nominated for the category of "cathartic", like 'Everest', a delicate midnight waltz with DiFranco's guitar and new band member Jason Mercer's bass swaying round each other like old-fashioned dance partners — but the overall sound is a bit too stifled and, at the same time, too roughly underproduced to really qualify as a masterpiece.
And pretty much the same words apply to everything else. My fond feeling for the album is not because of jaw-dropping melodies or terrific playing, but because it drives us into unexpectedly sadder territory — many of the songs sound like laments that, indeed, contain no anger, but only pure sorrow and a touch of bitterness. Eight minutes of 'Come Away From It' may seem way too much on paper, but they have a point: it is eight minutes of begging that, in effect, symbolize eight hundred, eight thousand, eight million minutes of begging, as much as it takes to get the point of your begging across. What is she begging for, though? "What makes you so lavish that you can afford to spend every sober moment feeling angry and bored?... Are you trying to tell me this world just isn't beautiful enough?.." One could say that the song's antagonist is Ani herself — the Ani of Not So Soft and Not A Pretty Girl — rather than some unnamed lover that we honestly don't give two shits about.
With each new album, the percentage of enigmatic songs is steadily increasing — I don't know if this can be interpreted as squeezing out the Buffalonian and soaking in the New Yorker, but it definitely makes it harder and harder to dismiss the tunes as simplistic and generic. The soft dark growl of 'Angel Food', for instance, with its funky waves and out-of-nowhere aboriginal hunt calls and its pre-post-beatnik lyrics, is a purely impressionistic matter. So is 'Know Now Then', whose lyrics vaguely refer to some other sort of girl-girl relationship but whose «astral jazz» textures almost might suggest the relationship is taking place on Mars. And Mars is actually referred to during the thirteen minutes of 'Hat-Shaped Hat', a whacky funky jam decidedly about nothing — actually, the weakest spot on the record, because Ani's outfit does not possess true jam power, and this time around, there are no atmospheric currents to hold the listener's attention, so if this is not a «space-padder» par excellence, I do not know what is.
Oh, I would really have liked to give the record a thumbs up, but now that I remember the album title, I just can't do it — it would feel like I'm being manipulated into the rating. On the other hand, the converse rating would also be wrong; as much as tracks like 'Hat-Shaped Hat' suggest that the lady should try getting into needlework, and as much as I miss her awesome guitar chops that are, for the most part, concealed either due to an outgrowth of modesty or an outgrowth of blisters, they are not enough to neutralize the honestly good moments of the record. Partly pointless, partly pretty, and we harbor enough liberal guilt to let it go with a word of kindness.