Revelling/Reckoning (Righteous Babe)
by Jamie Kiffel
Sliding, funk-stepping, forward-heeled, grooving out bass and noodly horns make the opening to Revelling syrupy, jazzy, and experimentally complex. The latest release from Ani DiFranco, a double-disc production of 29 tracks, plays like a yin and yang – one disc of hip grooves, jags about political and social ills and spoken word over bohemian back room beats; the other, Reckoning, a softer, slower collection of songs reminiscent of “Joyful Girl”: inward, slow meditations on relationships and how they play on our psyches. Instead of a seamless work, the discs play like portfolios of DiFranco’s many different styles of expression, dabbling with everything from a kazoo to an answering machine. This spells disappointment for a listener who loved DiFranco’s Not a Pretty Girl days of vitriolic menstrual spitfire. In some ways, these are the John Cage days of Ani DiFranco, complete with tuneless, honky noise that prattles accompaniment to long tracks about bacteria overtaking us, “soaking in the product placement,” and how “they’ve been spraying us with chemicals.” Though the tracks on Revelling do tell stories the way that Ani’s earlier works do, they tend to be stories with messages of social responsibility and warnings of media’s corruption, far more folk than rock, likely influenced by Ani’s recent work with Utah Philips and quiet time spent contemplating Woody Guthrie albums. To me, this comes across as somewhat heavy-handed; talking about pesticides feels dogmatic next to Ani’s signature just-between-you-and-me revelations of howling on the lawn of a lover’s house, or hopping on the back of some man’s bike when she really just wants to ink him with a sharp tattoo of reality.
Still, there are some gems here, and after all, reviewers like Yours Truly are notorious for condemning artists just for growing up. All we ever want is more of the same old stuff we smoked and drank to the first time around, and these discs are so large and far-reaching, they try a busy writer’s patience. At longer listen, they do have their old-time Ani moments, such as the lines, “the bloodthirsty hierarchy of the patriarchal arrangement,”or the sly, “I’m a good kisser and you’re a fast learner.” Still, with so much ground covered in so much musical time, it’s hard to find a style that isn’t explored here.
Reckoning stands as the disc that’s tougher to get into, if only for its lengthiness (the tracks are longer and there are more of them). It does have tracks I dislike, like “Subdivision,” which starts with the plodding line, “White people are so scared of black people.” Listen on, and discover smart lines like, “the ghosts of old buildings are haunting parking lots” as the piece grows into a deeply perceptive view of suburbia. Still, it remains flawed and spattered with tired, society-blaming ideas like “I learned by example to keep moving on” when seeing someone lying in the street.
DiFranco has made some dead-on scores, however. “School Night,” reminiscent of Indigo Girls at their most shadowy, is one. It features the painfully adult conclusion, “I stand committed to a love that came before you, and the fact that I adore you is just one of my truths.” Allowing a character to live with her pathologies without shrieking them or tearing at herself shows Ani’s own growth. After all, we all keep moving in spite of the bruises and tears behind our eyes. As kids, we blame each other; in college, we blame society. But beyond that, we just are as we are, take us or love us or hate us whether or not we happen to care. These two discs mix societal blaming and that more mature spirit of self-acceptance.
This isn’t the kind of collection that will make your brain bulge at every chord change. It has its dirges, digressions and self-indulgent moments (and minutes). But it also sears very hot in places, and is worth the time and money for the wide window it offers into the artist’s constantly unfurling self.
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