Classic Music Review: Out of Range by Ani DiFranco

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One of my favorite songwriters and one of my favorite albums since I was a teen. Click to buy.

I could have picked any of Ani DiFranco’s albums to begin my formal exploration of this very special American artist, but this series is about the music of my teens, and Out of Range was the first Ani DiFranco album I fell in love with.

During the 90’s, women musicians became hot commodities, especially if they produced music that was “emotionally honest.” That phrase took on several meanings, which in itself should tell you that emotional honesty was not all it was cracked up to be. If a woman ranted and raged on disc, she was labeled “emotionally honest,” even if it was really just a stance she took to sell records to women starved for models of free expression. In truth, the whole emotional honesty kick got its energy from sexist male music critics who had little idea that women were capable of self-expression and were titillated by women using the word “fuck” in their songs, especially when ejected with projectile velocity. Men have always felt awkward with feminism and the concept of women as equals, and because they’re embarrassed that a woman using the word “fuck” can make their balls tingle, they grope for non-sexist expressions like “emotionally honest” to disguise what’s really another reason for a hard-on.

You can actually measure the quality of a female singer-songwriter by the way they phrase the word “fuck” in their music. When Alanis Morrissette used it in her infantile jealousy song, “You Oughta Know,” she was immediately exposed as a fraud because she sang it with an apologetic tone that cried out, “I know this is a naughty word, but I’m really, really angry right now.” Liz Phair got it right in “Fuck and Run” on Exile from Guyville, using it in the conversational sense, giving the word no emphasis at all, thereby refusing to make the word a slogan in the cause of female liberation. Ani DiFranco uses it conversationally as well, without shame, embarrassment or the desire to exploit the adolescent listener.

“Conversational poetry” is a good phrase to describe Ani DiFranco’s work. As she said herself, “But in the he said/she said, sometimes there’s some poetry,” and most of her lyrics use the language of conversation rather than the forced poetics favored by ex-English majors like Suzanne Vega. As much as I love Joni Mitchell, she also has the tendency to try to make the simple complex and impenetrable by mucking up the lyrics with overwrought metaphors and arcane symbols. Even when she is addressing another person in a song, as in “Coyote” or “Song for Sharon,” those people are abstractions rather than conversational partners. Ani DiFranco’s songs come across as if she’s sitting across from you in the diner or the coffee shop, sharing her latest experience or trying to piece together fragments of life into something that makes sense. She is a poet of the vernacular, and that gives her poetry surprising power. When you use the language of the people to express a thought or feeling, the simplicity of the language disarms you and gives the “aha” moment real impact. Her direct and earthy approach is also consistent with her stated belief that “Folk music is not an acoustic guitar—that’s not where the heart of it is. I use the word ‘folk’ in reference to punk music and rap music. It’s an attitude, it’s an awareness of one’s heritage, and it’s a community. It’s subcorporate music that gives voice to different communities and their struggle against authority.” 

The key phrase there is “subcorporate,” for Ani DiFranco is the model of independence. This is a woman who founded her own record company at the age of eighteen. Ani DiFranco + major record company = unresolvable equation. It’s easy for me to relate to her on so many levels (bisexuality, atheism, left-wing politics), but her independence is something I deeply revere and strive for in my own life. Her independence is not simply the fling-it-in-your-face form of liberation, but is grounded in a deep awareness of who she is, who she is becoming and most importantly, who she is not.

She sings about her growth and independence in the samba-tinged opening song, “Buildings and Bridges.” Over a pristinely finger-picked guitar pattern that forms a rock-solid foundation, Ani glides through the lyrics with her beautiful and intensely expressive voice in rhythms generated from her emotional-intellectual interaction with the lyrics instead of syncing the vocal with the time signature. The message of the song is the simple and profound lesson that “what doesn’t bend breaks,” something that stubborn little me had a hard time mastering until my mid-20’s and even today I sometimes plant my feet too deep in the ground when I should be bending with the flow of life. Ani reminds us that we are in fact built to withstand change, despite our struggles to the contrary:

we are made to bleed
and scab and heal and bleed again
and turn every scar into a joke
we are made to fight and fuck and talk and fight again
and sit around and laugh until we choke
sit around and laugh until we choke

She then directly confronts the perception that strength in a woman automatically translates into stubborn, unshakeable feminism:

i don’t know who you were expecting
probably some bitch who does not budge
with eyes the size of snow
i may get pissed off sometimes
but you seem like the type to hold a grudge
and in the end, i just let go…

The feel of the song is light and pleasantly confident, with the scat vocals between verses strengthening the melodic richness of the song a hundredfold.

The title track, “Out of Range,” appears in two forms on the album, one acoustic, one electric. I prefer the acoustic version for its greater intimacy, and I might have liked the electric version better with more gain on the bass. Either way, the rapid-fire vocals and guitar work are mesmerizing. The song has to do with consciously choosing to change one’s perspective, whether you’re locked in a violent relationship, living out pre-programmed life-plans, or allowing comfort to blind yourself to the evil generated by the leaders of a certain superpower:

if you’re not angry
you’re just stupid or you don’t care
how else can you react
when you know something’s so unfair
the men of the hour can kill half the world in war
make them slaves to a superpower and let them die poor

The solution is to “drive out of range,” break the oppressive routine and get a grip: you’re never going to find a solution fighting a hopeless battle with a lover you can never please or a system incapable of recognizing individuality. Only when you get some perspective do you realize that “the mistakes of each generation” can create a black hole that will swallow you up if you put too much energy into the battle.

“Letter to a John” delves into the subject of the exploitation of women, particularly those cursed with beauty. When in the title track of her next album Ani describes herself as “not a pretty girl,” she’s not talking about her lack of physical beauty (I personally find her quite attractive, especially when she smiles), but about her refusal to be a trophy girl or a “damsel in distress” in need of a man. Amen, sister! What makes this song remarkable is the way she portrays the beautiful sex worker who narrates this dramatic monologue: she has empathy for her. Having been “the pretty one” as long as I can remember, I have learned to go into nearly any kind of relationship with another woman, be she friend of lover, with the knowledge that she probably resents me for my perceived beauty. Women can be extraordinarily competitive, a gene mutation that arises from the centuries-old mission to secure a man before you become an “old maid” or a “spinster.” It usually takes months of patience to get most women to even like me. Isn’t that awful? In the case of the sex worker, it is true that some wound up in the business because their beauty made them objects of child sexual abuse, while others had the ravenous appetite of teens for attention and putting out was the most effective way to get that attention, especially in a culture that views intelligent women with suspicion. In the last verse, Ani twists these lines with her voice as if she’s channeling her heroine’s angry revelation:

don’t ask me why i’m crying
i’m not going to tell you what’s wrong
i’m just gonna sit on your lap
for five dollars a song
i want you to pay me for my beauty
i think it’s only right
’cause i have been paying for it all of my life

So far I’ve focused more on Ani’s exceptional lyrics than her rare and extensive musical gifts. She is often acknowledged for her distinctive, highly expressive and flexible guitar phrasing, which blends perfectly with her equally elastic vocal capabilities. She also is a superb arranger and producer whose style is more like a painter than an engineer, adding just the right touch of color to the musical canvas to make a song come alive. You see this talent in action on “Hell Yeah,” one of my favorite tracks on the album. The first verse begins with Ani and her guitar, painting a reflective background with her gentle, high-range vocal over a finger-picked guitar on low background, all leading up to the emotional release we feel when something happens that is oh, so right and we exhale, “Hell, yeah” in a voice of deep satisfaction. Ani captures that in her vocal but also deepens the color by having a male (Andy Stochansky) sing harmony on “Oh yeah, hell yeah” in a matching tone of inner bliss. The relative quiet continues through the second verse, where piano chords are added towards the end to vary the soundscape. The “hell yeah” here disappears into a reverse strum that opens up to a bridge with more intense strumming, floating vocals in deep background, counterpoint piano and just the right splash of bass. The following verse echoes the pattern of the second verse with more variation from the piano; from there the loud-soft dynamic pattern emerges, peaking in a marvelous wordless duet of harmony and cross-vocalization. The music fades into the low-volume repetition of the first verse, where it now sounds like Ani is immersing herself into the pleasurable moment, like when you sink your aching body into a hot bath. We have to give engineer Ed Stone credit here (he and Ani were co-producers) while acknowledging that it’s the artist who has the vision, and with this song, Ani’s visualization powers were working at full intensity.

The next three numbers illustrate Ani’s vision of musical diversity. “How Have You Been” introduces a small jazz-funk combo to the mix, building a solid groove that allows Ani to display serious potential as a jazz vocalist. It’s followed by the gentle “Overlap,” where Ani muses about a romantic relationship over a guitar background that mingles her emotionally sensitive feel for the fretboard with occasional riffs from an electric guitar and a few splashes of spot-on vocal harmony. The sounds of an accordion open “Face Up and Sing,” forming the vamp that holds the structure in place, enhanced by energetic drums from Andy Stochansky. I have to pause here and quote the opening verses because I so relate to her frustration with culturally typical behavior from men and women and the deep desire to encounter someone with a spot of originality and a set of metaphorical balls:

some guy tried to rub up against me
in a crowded subway car
some guy tried to feed me some stupid line
in some stupid bar
i see the same shit everyday
the landscape looks so bleak
i think i’ll take the first one of you’s home
that does something unique

some chick says thank you for saying
all the things i never do
i say 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
as long as you play their game girl
you’re never going to win

Rude and stupid male behavior is something I’ve learned to expect, but I have never been able to comprehend a woman who is completely satisfied when she finds “someone who understands me.” That’s it? All you wanted someone to acknowledge that it sucks to be a second-class citizen? Don’t you want to fucking do anything about it? Even worse are women who want to talk about it—but still sit on their asses and do nothing. The last time I was in Nice, I had a conversation with my mother about the disappointing results of feminism: the girls who get to the top get there because they’re trying to out-male the males; still others are sympathetic but all they do is talk, like the People’s Front of Judea in Life of Brian; and there are still millions of women the world over condemned to a life of domestic servitude as baby production machines (or worse). I may be rather demanding on this topic (what else is new?), but it’s because I was raised by a pair of unusual people who always treated each other as equal partners. I have never seen my mother show deference to a man, even to her imperious and imposing father, and if my dad had ever had the gumption to say from his seat on the couch, “Hey honey, go fix me a ham sandwich,” those might have been the last words he ever spoke on this green earth.

Okay, back to Ani.

Despite her eloquence and incisive perception on the subject of feminism, Ani Di Franco is a whole woman who delights in the magic of love. “Falling Is Like This” is the song that drew me to Ani DiFranco in the first place, and remains one of the most beautiful love songs I’ve ever heard. Her description of the act of falling in love with all its starts and stops, its conflicting feelings of fear and desire, and that glorious moment when you let go of the trapeze and fall into another person’s arms is so touching, so human, so beautiful. The moments in the song that send shivers up and down my spine are the ethereal harmonies on “falling is like this,” which capture that precious moment of swooning as your resistance collapses and you give yourself completely to the moment, to the other. The metaphors in the opening verses—“like laughing with liquid in your mouth” and “feels like reckless driving” when we’re talking—are original and dead-on, but I find the more direct lines of the last verse even more compelling and touching:

i’m sorry i can’t help you, i cannot keep you safe
i’m sorry i can’t help myself, so don’t look at me that way
we can’t fight gravity on a planet that insists
that love is like falling
and falling is like this

After the electric version of “Out of Range,” we hear the long, meditative piano introduction (played by Chris Brown) to the intensely personal “You Had Time.” The song describes Ani’s thoughts and feelings as she contemplates returning from a long tour to a waiting lover. In the first verse, we realize that she is not coming home to a lover of the long-lost kind, but one she left because she needed time to think; the song is about having to face that moment when her time is up. She envisions everything playing itself according to script, a script where the actors perform a dance of avoidance:

you’ll say did they love you or what
i’ll say they love what i do
the only one who really loves me is you
and you’ll say girl did you kick some butt
and i’ll say i don’t really remember
but my fingers are sore
and my voice is too

you’ll say it’s really good to see you
you’ll say i missed you horribly
you’ll say let me carry that
give that to me
and you will take the heavy stuff
and you will drive the car
and i’ll look out the window and make jokes
about the way things are

But she knows that “you are the china shop and I am a bull,” making it unlikely that she’s coming home with good news for her lover. The melancholy beauty of the song is enhanced because she never comes out and says, “I’m sorry, but this isn’t going to work for me.” The story is left in suspension; she has nothing to say, and whether she’s holding onto the hope that perhaps her feelings will emerge with time and rest, or simply wants to avoid the unpleasantness of rejecting a person who cares deeply for her is never resolved. “You Had Time” is a brilliant and moving expression of the complex bonds of relationships, of endings, pauses and, perhaps, beginnings.

“If He Tries Anything” seems to be a memory of life as a tough teenage girl and her boon companion as they navigate the streets with attitude and switchblades, giggling only in private. It’s a spicy little number with a nice groove mostly driven by Ani’s guitar slapping. Out of Range ends with “The Diner,” a sassy dramatic monologue from an earthy girl of the lower classes trying to survive through a combination of manipulation and grit. Here she’s calling an ex from the diner, trying to convince him to join her for a cup of coffee . . . and her persuasion techniques could stand some improvement:

i’m calling from the diner
the diner on the corner
i ordered two coffees
one is for you
i was hoping you’d join me
’cause i ain’t go no money
and i really miss you
i should mention that too

Apparently her sales pitch is falling flat, so she turns on the . . . er,  charm:

i miss watching you
drool on your pillow
i miss watching you
pull on your clothes
i miss listening
to you in the bathroom
flushing the toilet
blowing your nose

Ani’s delivery is a hoot, alternating from tentative confidence to desperate growls. When the girl tries a last-gasp compliment, we can see why this guy is never going to show:

i think you’re the least fucked-up person
i’ve ever met
and that may be as close to the real thing
as I’m ever gonna get

The song ends with her quarter running out and the coffee getting cold. We feel sorry for the girl while knowing she’s getting exactly what she deserves . . . and that it ain’t gonna get any better until she fixes the problem inside.

I have every intention of reviewing more Ani DiFranco records, as her work is nearly always fresh and original, and full of honest reflections on life and self that encourage the same in the listener. She almost falls into the category of Unappreciated Gems, having had only one gold record in a long career that has produced more than its share of worthy contributions to the recording arts. Her live performances always receive rave reviews because of her special ability to connect with an audience on a surprisingly intimate level (see video below). While independence may have limited her reach, I can’t imagine her any other way. Ani DiFranco is an American treasure, and I hope that over time she will be recognized as the one who was a cut above all the rest.

6 responses

  1. Delurking for a moment to say how much I really enjoyed this review. I first heard Ani’s “Out Of Range” (the song) on local college radio in the late 90s. It was the live version off the “Living In Clip” album, complete with the audience interaction that leads into the song (and even more before the she gets started with first verse!) I was GALVANIZED. Immediately. Her fretwork alone on that driving riff alone would have been enough, but then come those lyrics, the urgency and sincerity behind them, the delivery, and that harmonic right before she recites the name of the song… I never had anything hit me so fast, that hard. I’ve been a fan ever since.

    I really loved your review of this album and how you managed to capture so much of what makes her, as you say, “a cut above”. A deep one, without question. I very much look forward to reading more in the future.

    Like

    1. Thank you! It was really a remarkable experience to get in touch with her again, because her music and her words had such a profound influence on me, more than any other artist during that period in my life. I spent most of my long flight this week listening to her other albums, and her art definitely stands the test of time.

      Like

  2. Reblogged this on ringingtruenet and commented:
    One of her many insightful and well-written reviews.

    Like

  3. […] Classic Music Review: Out of Range by Ani DiFranco […]

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