When I was a punk rock kid, I lived in constant fear of my favorite punk bands “selling out”. It seems fans of Ani Difranco have a lot in common with punk kids, in that they are constantly on the lookout for some evidence of her “selling out” to the mainstream. With every album she releases and every big event that occurs in her life, legions of angry fans scream sellout.
In order to quell all fears, this is not Ani’s sellout album. If anything this is a step in the opposite direction, away from the accessible music of her previous works (Dilate, Little Plastic Castles) and into a more experimental territory. This double disc set, Reveling/Reckoning is jazzy and funky. This is by no means a double album either, instead this is two separate albums packaged and released together. Reveling is much more fast-paced and funky than Reckoning and captures some of the intensity of Ani’s previous efforts. Reckoning is slower, more acoustic and drawn out, and has less intensity than much of Ani’s repertoire.
Still neither disc is as emotionally intense as Ani’s earlier music. The lyrical quality is still top-notch and in terms of strictly musical criticism, some of the jazzier songs are very good, but all of the songs, except a few standouts, lack any sense of emotional outpouring. Much of the set seems forced and fake, as if Ani is now playing the role of Ani the pissed off poet instead of living it. Songs like “sick of me” and “reckoning” are slow and lack interesting ideas or emotions. She relies on her ability to make strange metaphors by incorporating poetry and cultural touchstones, but she is missing any real conviction on most of the songs.
Ani Difranco has such immense musical and lyrical ability, that despite the lack of a cohesive and amazing album, there are still a few standouts on both of the discs. On Reveling, “Garden of Simple” is a remarkable song that reminds listeners that despite the weakness of these albums, Ani hasn’t lost complete touch with her emotions. Lyrics like “The best minds of my generation / Can’t make bail” allude to Allen Ginsburg and the memories of people who were too smart for this culture, who by rejecting it, push themselves into corners that they cannot get out of. Musically, the song is sparse, but comfortably sparse. It is just Ani and her acoustic guitar, and like Woody Guthrie, her machine kills fascists every time she lets it out. She plays the guitar like she is playing percussion, keeping beat while allowing lines of melody to float throughout the song, almost punctuating every point she sings.
Another impressive song on the set is “subdivision”, off Reckoning. This is her political point for the album and it’s a shame that this is the one of the only songs that really addresses any sort of political position. She admits her own apathy on this song with lyrics like “I remember the first time I saw someone / Lying on the cold street / I thought: I can’t just walk past here / This just can’t be true / But I learned by example/ T o just keep moving my feet / It’s amazing the things we learn to do.” These lyrics ring true in the ears of the listener, and remind every city-dweller of the first time a homeless person blocked the sidewalk. These lyrics bring back the memories of not knowing what to do when someone asks you for money, and quickly becoming immune to the saddest story that could be told for a quarter. The piano on this song lends a layer of emotion that the guitar is incapable of conveying. Punctuating the guitar’s sparse chords with complementing lines of melody, the piano adds a texture that adds to the song’s feeling of apathy and helplessness. The beat is kept mostly by Ani’s guitar, but the shakers in the background along with the repetitive cymbal has marching quality to it. It allows the listener to feel like Ani is leading a journey across her memory, pointing out all the things that bother her but can’t be changed.
Ani needs to realize that she isn’t a jazz or soul singer. Her voice is rough and gravely and despite any artistic inspiration, her voice works for folk and not for jazz. This two disc is commendable because she is trying to push the boundries of what her fans expect from her. Unfortunaley, this set ultimately fails because it’s a cheap imitation of what Ani Difranco wants to be, rather than an original manifestation of her own characteristics and artistic talent.