Here’s a woman who’s really doing something for the revolution. Taking acoustic folk as her form, resolute DIY as her ethos, empowerment as her mission and punk as her style, Buffalo-born singer/songwriter Ani DiFranco has to be admired as much for the achievement of her self-propelled stardom as for the excellence of her tartly observed, personality-filled songs. A skilled guitar-plucker with an athletic voice, an infectious laugh, appealing melodies and the lyrical acuity to (usually) resist the sophomoric preciousness that afflicts other sensitive young singer/songwriters, DiFranco ambles easily on the creative waters that have drowned so many in crocodile tears. To her large and growing audience, she is a confident big sister, a plucky pal, a gutsy feminist, an unplugged rock’n’roller; on top of it all, she’s the owner and operator of a successful independent record label run as a family affair. It’s tempting to revere DiFranco sound unheard, or identify her by the teenaged worshipers who attend her shows, but her outspoken albums are too substantial and determined for that.
Sketching out a characteristic map between the conversational (“Talk to Me Now”), the sexual/romantic (“Both Hands”), the observed (“Pale Purple,” “Dog Coffee”) and the topical (crossing picket lines to get an abortion in “Lost Woman Song”), Ani DiFranco gets the story going simply and handsomely with one voice and one guitar. In a Suzanne Vega timbre, the 19-year-old announces herself as a soft center with a hard shell who has learned how to survive in her adopted home of New York City: “I have to act as strong as I can/Just to preserve a place/Where I can be who I am.” She tells off guys who harass her in the street, pushes out an undesired visitor (“Out of Habit,” which contains the attention-getting “My cunt is built like a wound that won’t heal”) and suffers the traumatic aftershocks of a failed relationship (“Letting the Telephone Ring”), all with a mixture of sober reflection and ebullient release, relishing her power while keeping an eye on the door.
DiFranco’s second album, Not So Soft, is true to its title. Besides adding some conga drum and overdubs, she replaces the pretty folk singing of the debut with a forceful, vibrato-curled blues-rock voice and attacks her guitar with the percussive vigor of someone who has played to many noisy crowds without an amplifier. The lyrics are also bolder, shot harder and faster from the hip. The spoken title track takes an ambitious swipe at integrating a world critique; DiFranco gets off some personal good lines (“I always wanted to be commander in chief of my one-woman army”) but doesn’t grab hold of anything more universal. Still on big issues, “On Every Corner” asks “How will they define our generation in the coming decades?” DiFranco uses that concern to challenge her listeners into personal accountability. Taking the risk of sharing too much, DiFranco enunciates her humanist code in “Looking for Holes”: “We can’t afford to do anyone harm/Because we owe them our lives/Every breath is recycled from someone else’s lungs.” But revelation is on her mind: in “The Whole Night,” she comfortably considers making love to a woman. Overall, though, too many songs overreach and bellyflop in mushy ground. Not So Soft is her least engaging album.
Imperfectly (“everything depicted herein is real, any similarity to fictitious characters or events is completely coincidental”) adds drummer Andy Stochansky, an occasional bassist, bits of mandolin, trumpet and, on “Served Faithfully,” Mary Ramsey of 10,000 Maniacs on viola. Making a great leap forward in both presentation and content, a newly urgent-sounding DiFranco fires on all fronts: “What If No One’s Watching” tries on atheism with pin-prick sense (“What if when we’re dead we are just dead?”-take that, Joan Osborne!), “Every State Line” tells a politically informed road story, “Make Them Apologize” dissects male domination in love, music and politics, “The Waiting Song” deflates the hypocrisy of rock stardom and “Good, Bad, Ugly” fishes around the difficulties of romance. “Coming Up” is a two-tracked poem that doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. But the song on which Imperfectly pivots is “In or Out,” a memorable tune that turns ambivalence into a proud statement of why-not inclusion and has become her de facto anthem. Announcing “I owe my life to the people that I love,” she provocatively calls herself “Mr. DiFranco” and says, “Some days the line I walk turns out to be straight / Other days the line tends to deviate / I’ve got no criteria for sex or race.”
What were tentative band experiments on Imperfectly become the rule on Puddle Dive; although DiFranco does several songs on her own (slapping her acoustic guitar with a rhythm-keeping intensity that obviates the need for accompaniment), the rich, playful album is marbled with tasteful instrumental contributions that fill in the tracks but stay out of the star’s way. Ever more confident in her ability to equal the lyrical challenges she sets herself, DiFranco steps out on various limbs — inverting racist stereotypes in “Names and Dates and Times,” tearing into the club world’s peer-group competition in the devastating “Egos Like Hairdos,” recounting a menstrual mishap in “Blood in the Boardroom” — and, with one exception (the trite Andy Rooney nonsense of “Pick Yer Nose”), climbs back safely. If the report of “Used to You” is accurate, her emotional bungee-jumping also brings her back in one piece. The song begins by calling a lover “an asshole” and concludes “I could love you / Yeah I’ve entertained the thought / But I could never like you/So I guess I better not.”
The intent of Like I Said was to bring 15 songs from the first two albums up to date by rerecording them with Stochansky and a few other sympathetic musicians. Ironically, the album succeeds at something else entirely: DiFranco’s growth as a thoughtful, expressive singer informs the delicate, intimate reconsiderations. The effect is subtle but marvelous. Like I Said gives an entirely wrong first impression with a furiously mannered remake of “Anticipate,” but quickly settles into an understated beauty reminiscent of early Joni Mitchell records. “Rockabye” is sweet and low; cello shapes “Work Your Way Out”; subliminal bagpipes underpin “She Says”; the irritated sexual refusal of “Gratitude” becomes gracefully eloquent; a brisk spin through “The Whole Night” makes the song dance like a light heart.
Out of Range is DiFranco’s masterpiece, a fully primed band (and solo) effort that delivers her into the real world with an established and presentably commercial sound, a clear artistic vision and a secure sense of place. Able to place herself into the mind of a woman who sells sex, and cleverly view life as a B-movie (“It’s stupid and it’s strange / It’s a directionless story / And the dialogue is lame”), she remains close enough to her listeners to berate them for their passivity. Over pumping accordion in the pungent “Face Up and Sing,” DiFranco allows her fatigue and irritation to show, but turns it into a positive call to action. “Some chick says thank you for saying all the things I never do / I say you know the thanks I get is to take all the shit for you / It’s nice that you listen / It’d be nicer if you joined in.” The shy romantic desire of “The Diner” ties DiFranco back to the winsome uncertainties of youth, but most of the album makes maturity seem like a state of grace worth reaching.
DiFranco sounds like a mainstream careerist for the first time on the proud and mighty Not a Pretty Girl, but the fleshed-out (self-)production, occasionally overbearing singing and a radio-ready sound converging on a stylemeld of Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega and Melissa Etheridge don’t compromise her forthrightness or ability to tease exorbitant beauty out of a simple idea. The narrator of the spoken “Tiptoe” prepares for an abortion by walking through piers of used condoms “with a fetus holding court in my gut”; “Shy” spies men pissing in doorways. Switching easily from the personal to the public, she apologizes tenderly to a faded love (“Sorry I Am”) and considers unjust incarceration (“Crime for Crime”), describes her romantic ideal (“Asking Too Much”) and again rejects the record industry’s advances (“The Million You Never Made”). A certain familiarity is creeping into her subject matter, though (literally in one case: a remake of Imperfectly’s “Coming Up”). And the depth charge she loads into a confession of infidelity (“Light of Some Kind”) is kind of a cheap shot: “I still think of you as my boyfriend / I don’t think this is the end of the world / Maybe you should follow my example / And go meet yourself a really nice girl.” (In concert, that bit of bi-sexual bravado invariably elicits howls of approval.) Still, quiet dignity remains her real forte, and “Hour Follows Hour” is six minutes of exquisite romantic tenderness. At the height of her power, DiFranco cuts a formidable figure here, the queen of a universe she has drawn around herself. As commendable as her dedication to autonomy is, the danger of solipsistic narrow-mindedness is rising. It may be time for this staunch and talented independent to make some new friends.
The opening song on Dilate, an ambitiously self-produced album that uses keyboards, bass and drums to expand on the guitar core, sure won’t do that: “Untouchable Face” quietly leads up to a catchy chorus of “Fuck you!” — a self-indulgent and unsophisticated way to satisfy an audience’s pan-animus needs. While stretching some personal musical borders here (the electric “Outta Me, Onto You,” the funky beat and treated vocal of “Going Down,” the pretentious trip-hop art-concept version of “Amazing Grace”), DiFranco seems to be withdrawing deeper into a private world, skillfully singing to herself more than ever. “Napoleon,” yet another scornful treatise on major-label stardom, is one protest too many on the subject. “I care less and less what people think,” she sings in “Dilate” before confessing to being in love; it’s hard to tell which sentiment comes closer to her soul. The album has many of DiFranco’s usual virtues and the added appeal of studio aplomb and varied three-dimensional instrumental presentation, but the ultimate message of Dilate is individualism and remoteness rather than community and intimacy. That’s a change she probably didn’t mean to make.