Growing up in Madison Wisconsin surrounded by progressive and hip indie fellow Madisonians Ani DiFranco was always one of those names tossed around in conversation that I never thought of listening to. I thought she must be over hyped and was rumored to uber feminist to the point you couldn't stand it especially as a heterosexual man. One day in late high school I think in my senior year I took a chance on buying her self titled debut album without having heard a single note of any her music beforehand. I had very little high hopes or expectations but I popped the record in and it's one of those rare instant conversions of a music fan in life. The first song Both Hands came on and the second I heard her voice and lyrics I look a liking to her. I said this girl can write a good song. After that I bought several more albums and listened to many others. My college sweetheart Dana was also a major Ani fan and she was keen on going to see her live which we did in 2006.
DiFranco has been pretty prolific since her 1990 debut record and has between official studio and live albums put out over 20 records to date. She has almost constantly toured since her early days only stopping for some injuries and to take care of family business from time to time. Her self started Buffalo New York based Righteous Babe record label has grown into a fairly successful indie label for other folk and singer-songwriter acts signed to it as well.
DiFranco's prolific and diverse studio output makes it tougher to choose which album to review. True enough some albums are more consistent and better than others as it's hard to put out that much good consistent product over that much time. However me I have to say her first album is a good starting point for anyone looking to get into her. It has all her constant immediate elements there but it's obviously alot more stark naked in comparison to some later albums. It's a straight no chaser folk acoustic guitar and singer record so if that's something you can't ever get into then don't bother with this record I suppose. However if you're open to it I think the help has very melodic and immediate sense to it.
Both Ends starts off with percussive staccato guitar playing (which is something of a trademark for Ani) and then her pure voice comes out of the bouncing intimate guitar. It's like she is there with you in conversation but also playing live to you in a big room at once. A definite favorite of most Ani devotees. Her lyrical imagery shows the influence of her having taken free verse poetry classes in New York City when she was growing up.
Talk to Me Now has a very warm feel to the guitar playing and her voice is inviting but the lyrics talk of independence in a city.
The Slant is a free form kind of poem being recited a capella. It's got some interesting word choices and delivery.
Work Your Way Out features some more intricate work (Ani is a rather underrated guitarist in my opinion) on the guitar and is a bit more subtle and dark in tone. It's much more whispered and plaintive even confrontational in atmosphere.
Dog Coffee is more punchy like the early songs it's bit off kilter but it fits well within the context of the album.
Lost Woman Song is a moving song about getting an abortion but it features more finger picked guitar and like Work Your Way Out features a more confrontational vocal.
Pale Purple has more of the start stop dynamics that Ani employs throughout the album. It has a sing song quality that is kind of interesting. The staccato guitar is pretty consistent throughout the album which more being a bit monotonous throughout the record but I'd argue DiFranco has some many memorable melodies here that actually grow on you with some repeated listens.
Rush Hour is more fast paced and somehow fits in between what I see as the two qualities she has shown in her tunes thus far on the album. It's like Work Your Way Out in delivery but it has a warmer guitar part than that song or Lost Woman Song.
Firedoor is quite catchy to me. I like the warm inviting tone of the guitar and DiFranco's fast paced lyrical delivery she's punching out words like a machine gun here.
The Story is a bit more reflective and almost melancholic in tone compared to every song preceding it. Beforehand Ani is either playful in tone on her songs or just plaintive and somewhat angry here she is more subdued which is a nice change of pace altogether.
Every Angle returns her to a more uptempo pace that relies on a muted start stop guitar technique. It's not my favorite song on the album but it does help keep the flow of the record strong after the Story.
Out of Habit ranks as one of my favorites and is like Both Hands or Talk to Me Now very immediate and catchy, it's very warm and inviting in tone even if the lyrics might state one of independence or emotional honesty.
Letting the Telephone Ring is the album closer with more of the fast paced finger picking style she displays on half the album. Its a song of highs and lows in tone and it has an interesting flow throughout. It's a disquieting end to the album.
Ani DiFranco's self titled debut is a strong one at that. It may not be her best work and it's a bit naive in the stripped cliche of acoustic singer-songwriter type of delivery but it has it's strong qualities. It has a consistent tone which to some maybe as I stated earlier a bit one dimensional but many songs have an immediacy and catchiness to them and with subsequent listens one can pick up the subtlties of Ani's guitar playing in particular. Her lyrics are at times complex in delivery but clearly even here she's indicated a knack for writing good and memorable lines. Also her voice has an interesting pure tone that translates well and intimately. Overall I'd recommend this record as a good way to acquaint yourself with Ani's work and from there you can start to see her gradual shedding of the folkie with the acoustic guitar and nothing else image on subsequent albums.