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The Boston Phoenix As Is

Ani DiFranco remains a maverick.

By Joan Anderman

FEBRUARY 16, 1998:  Much has been made of the metaphorical middle finger Ani DiFranco gleefully extends to the fawning record-company executives who have courted her through the years, and legitimately so. The absence of a corporate elite stoking DiFranco's music machine is fundamental to her creative latitude. Every hip-hop folk rave, each spoken-word jazz manifesto, the catalogue of kamikaze guitar chording and fuck-you poetry and bloody sweet melodies -- it's all the product of her fiercely independent artistic vision. But even more earth-shaking is the sense that DiFranco herself has removed every filter between her emotional life and her songs, and that's what lifts the material from compelling music to exhilarating art. Adventurous and beautiful as her folk/punk/pop fusion is, it's the brave woman who spews them forth that draws you in.

Little Plastic Castle -- released on DiFranco's own Buffalo-hometown label, Righteous Babe Records, and due in stores this Tuesday -- is no great departure from the 10 albums she's put out over the past eight years. In an artist as sharp and searching as DiFranco, consistency is a virtue. Little Plastic Castle distinguishes itself, however, by matching the force of her live performances more closely than any of her previous studio-recorded works, where flimsy production and the comparatively static studio environment have diluted her potency.

It's an irony of DiFranco's career that the qualities that have moved fans and many critics to canonize her -- outspoken abhorrence of commercial greed, frank sexuality, painstaking introspection, and a sort of poetry-slam-style medley of humor, anger, and vulnerability -- don't jive well with the notion (and attendant scrutiny) of being an icon in the popular culture. Here she wastes no time in her ongoing effort to distance herself from the media-fueled Ani mythology. On the title track she sings: "People talk/About my image/Like I come in two dimensions/Like lipstick is a sign of my declining mind/Like what I happen to be wearing/The day that someone takes a picture/Is a new statement for all of womankind." That DiFranco hears sprightly, ska-flavored horns and a perky "yee-haw" as the defining mood for her antihero message is not, to the initiated ear, a surprise.

Performance art is a dated descriptive in the free-wheeling '90s, but DiFranco co-opts the fundamental tenets of that form -- no rules, no boundaries, big ideas -- with fluid, unselfconscious grace. On "Fuel," a gently minimalist two-chord riff is the bare stage on which she raps, cackles, groans, and hyperventilates a lyric that spans political corruption, media ineptitude, vapid art, and the moral void. "Deep Dish" pushes even farther, and not altogether successfully, at the proverbial edge with good-natured gangster disco characterized by a mock-sinister tone and embellished with a free-verse poetry break and dance-floor incantations. The point, daring though it may be, is not easily taken.

DiFranco stretches to the point where only her omnipresent acoustic guitar keeps the term "folk" at all applicable. She pulls and rubs her strings as if they were the faithless lover she can't turn away from in "Gravel"; she sculpts a rhythmic whirlwind to mirror an unfathomable friendship in the ebbing, flowing "Loom." On "Swan Dive," the darkest and most unsettling song here, she scratches out harsh little figures in flip-flopping meters that punctuate images of sex and suicide. There's not a guitar solo to be heard -- though she's an able, inventive player. She's more inclined to use those six strings to build kinetic musical timbres that echo -- often brilliantly -- the songs' emotional timbres.

There are stumbles, too. "Glass House" is an overwrought, pedestrian rocker with dangerous-sounding changes and a half-whispered, half-wailed vocal that would be more at home on a Melissa Etheridge album. For the antidote, cut to "Pulse," a jazzy, elastic rap that stretches on for 14 minutes. Or to "As Is," a plainspoken ballad in which DiFranco tiptoes through landmines of lies and deception (if there's a recurring theme on this album, it's the beloved fuck-up) and comes out oddly, hearteningly triumphant: "I got no illusions about you/Guess what/I never did/When I said/When I said I'll take it/I meant/I meant as is."

Herein lies the heart of Ani DiFranco's great appeal: she sees the world through clear, dry eyes and plays it as it lays. The result is a riveting mass of contradictions, the mess of life distilled into one more handful of songs -- breathtaking for their soul-baring intimacy as much as for their maverick universality.

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