Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Ani DiFranco

  • Imperfectly [Righteous Babe, 1992] A-
  • Puddle Dive [Righteous Babe, 1993] **
  • Like I Said [Righteous Babe, 1993] **
  • Out of Range [Righteous Babe, 1994] ***
  • Not a Pretty Girl [Righteous Babe, 1995] A-
  • Dilate [Righteous Babe, 1996] A-
  • Living in Clip [Righteous Babe, 1997] A-
  • Little Plastic Castle [Righteous Babe, 1998] A-
  • Up Up Up Up Up Up [Righteous Babe, 1999] A-
  • To the Teeth [Righteous Babe, 1999] *
  • Swing Set [Righteous Babe, 2000] **
  • Revelling/Reckoning [Righteous Babe, 2001] B-
  • So Much Shouting/So Much Laughter [Righteous Babe, 2002] *
  • ¿Which Side Are You On? [Righteous Babe, 2012] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Imperfectly [Righteous Babe, 1992]
In which woman love becomes a vividly attractive life option rather than a cause. Does she advise her friend in the bad relationship, the one who "sits there like America suffering through slow reform," to come out? Nope, she tells her "there's plenty of great men out there." Linguistic craft as a means to character--a barely drinking-age performer-entrepreneur's own headstrong, mercurial, sensual, edgy, alert, pissed off, affectionate, waggish, empowered, needy, indomitable, fierce, leftwing, hyperemotional, supercompetent persona. A-

Puddle Dive [Righteous Babe, 1993]
or is that puddle diva? ("Names and Dates and Times," "Pick Yer Nose") **

Like I Said [Righteous Babe, 1993]
cherry-picking the skillfully turned-out nakedness of (her first) two self-released tapes/CDs ("Lost Woman Song," "Both Hands," "Anticipate") **

Out of Range [Righteous Babe, 1994]
distracted by piano, accordion, even horns from her lithe sound, self-starting folk-punk remains a tough broad who aims to figure it all out ("The Diner," "Letter to a John," "Face Up and Sing") ***

Not a Pretty Girl [Righteous Babe, 1995]
Although her girlcult loves her madly, the guys I know smell trouble every time she opens her mouth. This has nothing to do with her face, body, or sense of style. It's her words, the sheer volume of them, jetting out in expressionistic torrents as if she feels free to say any goddamn thing that comes to mind. But give DiFranco the chance and she may just make you like her ancient formula for self-indulgent songpoetry. Augmented only by a drummer this time, her acoustic guitar and electric bass produce a one-of-a-kind sound, and those torrents take shape as literal accounts of a mercurial inner life with more love than anger in it. So if she's not my type and maybe not yours, big deal. At 24, she already has seven albums hanging from her nose ring, and they're getting good enough that we need her more than she needs us. A-

Dilate [Righteous Babe, 1996]
On an album loaded with quotable quotes, my favorite is the refrain (well, she says it twice) of the six-and-a-half-minute "Adam and Eve": "i am truly sorry about all this." I mean, she knows--knows what a pain in the ass she is, knows how much space her emotions take up, knows she once banged a power line with her stickball bat and blacked out the entire eastern seaboard. She boasts about her integrity, her vulnerability, her joy. She jokes about them too. She has a friend's mom phone in obscure verses of "Amazing Grace." She utters, I kid you not, the most vituperative "fuck you" in the history of the music. She is herself, and for once that's more than enough. A-

Living in Clip [Righteous Babe, 1997]
DiFranco has always been beat-happy. From the beginning you can catch her speed-strumming just for the rush, but in general her guitar figures and her sense of rhythm are both much quirkier; older folkies would have diagnosed them as symptoms of some awful nervous disorder. In the spare and agile Andy Stochansky, who isn't averse to powering up but more characteristically states and embellishes a single eccentric line with brushes or mallets or lightly wielded sticks, she may have found the best folk-rock drummer who's ever lived, and this live double-CD, which draws liberally on her formative folk-punk years for those who only caught on with Dilate, is his showcase. Joined as well by the supplest of her several bassists, Gang of Four stalwart Sara Lee, DiFranco proves herself not just miraculously arch and sisterly and sexy and effervescent, but a bandleader who has wiggled free of deadening acoustic-with-backup commonplaces--and evolved from the truth of "Smile pretty and watch your back" to that of "We lose sight of everything when we have to keep checking our backs." A-

Little Plastic Castle [Righteous Babe, 1998]
Here's hoping she gets used to fame, a theme the coolest new-famous are now canny enough to sidestep or caricature. But DiFranco doesn't have much use for ordinary standards of cool, which is one reason she's new-famous, and for the nonce, she can do no wrong. Always underlying her bull-session eloquence, a hook no matter the message, is the supple, seductive, self-amused musicality that puts her records across. A typical touch here is her choice of world-jazz-ambient trumpeter Jon Hassell to decorate the 14-minute spoken-word finale "Pulse": "you crawled into my bed/like some sort of giant insect/and I found myself spellbound/at the sight of you there/beautiful and grotesque/and all the rest of that bug stuff." "That bug stuff"--who else would dare it? A-

Up Up Up Up Up Up [Righteous Babe, 1999]
Reports that she's fallen in love with the mirror are rank last-big-thingism. She's still the girl who ran away with the circus because bearded ladies do honest work, and far from going too far, her 13 climactic minutes of poetry-with-jazz attest to her unflagging esprit. She should let her junkie jones be for a while. But not her class jones. The rich are always with us. A-

To the Teeth [Righteous Babe, 1999]
overreaching? her? just demonstrating her integrity is all ("Cloud Blood," "Freakshow"). *

Swing Set [Righteous Babe, 2000]
Two well-armed To the Teeth remixes, two (out of three) well-designed covers ("Hurricane," "Do Re Mi"). **

Revelling/Reckoning [Righteous Babe, 2001]
"The songs/they come out more slowly/Now that I am the bad guy," she allows in the best song-not-track here. But maybe admitting that you require more patience than the average lover has in him or her is a way of evading harder truths--namely, that songs also come out more slowly when you're selling as opposed to defining yourself, as she did for so long with such charm, chutzpah, wit, grit, and politics. This is a double album where the best songwriting never meshes with the best horn writing, which is what gets her juices going these days. That is, it's a double album marking a year she should have taken off. Intelligence you can count on. Integrity you can foster. But inspiration requires more patience than the average genius has in her, and let us not forget the average label owner. B-

So Much Shouting/So Much Laughter [Righteous Babe, 2002]
live revisions for her fan base, which still has a live one ("Comes a Time," "Whathowwhenwhere") *

¿Which Side Are You On? [Righteous Babe, 2012]
After a decade of futzing around, of music so overthought that even her best-of couldn't make a case for it, this one's like re-encountering a friend who drifted away after she took a bad job or married a jerk. Both of which might have happened--nobody she signed to Righteous Babe did much for her bottom line, and the nuptials that ruffled her feminist faithful in 1998 ended badly in 2003. Now, finally, her first album since she married her five-year-old's father is as fresh as Lisa Lee at the top of the key. With Uncle Pete signing on via banjogram, the title song announces a political renewal so focused on the three-syllable F-word that it includes an E.R.A. anthem. But for DiFranco the political has always been personal, which doesn't mean private and can mean intellectualized, as in "Promiscuity." The singing on the homelessness tale that opens is as emotionally accomplished as its assumed first-person is formally atypical. The one that reads "If yr not getting happier as you get older/then yr fucking up" is her true credo. A-

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