Fish imagery abounds in the
lyrics and packaging of Ani DiFranco's new album. Despite little
or no airplay and her refusal to sign on anyone else's dotted
line (Little Plastic Castle is the 12th release on her
own Righteous Babe label since 1990), Ani's popularity has grown
by leaps and bounds -- and with great visibility comes great
scrutiny. It's no wonder DiFranco poses in a fishbowl on the
CD's back cover: she must feel as if she's living inside one.
So is this Ani's fame-sucks
album, the way Dilate was her breaking-up-sucks album?
Not quite. She pretty much gets that out of the way in the opening
title track: "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 my picture/is
my new statement for all of womankind." From there, LPC
is a thematically diverse and musically adventurous disc.
Despite her often bitter lyrics
(check out "Gravel" or "As Is" on the new
album), DiFranco has never fit comfortably into the angry-white-female
category. For one thing, she takes too much obvious pleasure
in making music (this is especially clear on last year's double-scoop
concert album Living in Clip). Moping and seething aren't
her bread and butter. As she points out in "Pixie":
"i'm the color me happy girl/miss live and let live/and
when they're out for blood/i always give." Ani is about
meeting life full in the face, with a laugh.
DiFranco is also about contradictions.
Always up-front about being a messily conflicted human being,
Ani seems to question the happy-go-lucky stance in "Pixie."
"come on, kids," she advises, "let's all hold
hands/and pretend we're having a good time"; the refrain
of the song is "just suck up and be nice." Are we supposed
to take this as irony? Probably, but in the same song she racks
on the fake-goth kids "playing at death...with their ghostly
makeup/and their heroin breath." This songwriter has never
been easy to pin down. Her philosophy is best summed up on her
Not a Pretty Girl anthem "32 Flavors."
Musically, Ani is both tight
and loose, as usual: spontaneous-sounding and scrappy, but immaculately
structured, with Ani's tricky but beautifully controlled acoustic-guitar
flights underlining her alternately jubilant and soothing vocals.
One experiment on the album doesn't come off: "Deep Dish,"
where DiFranco gives the floor to a stoned-sounding guy reading
witless truisms. If the intent was satire, it would've been funnier
if Ani had read it; if it's intended seriously, it's dumb. Some
critics have bitched about the final 14-minute track "Pulse,"
but I liked it; it's a good trance-out climax.
"Pulse" also shows
Ani at her most reflective. Is it a love-conquers-death poem?
Or a death-conquers-everything-so-let's-live-in-the-moment ode?
Probably both. Little Plastic Castle is Ani at her most
divided -- a neat split in focus between the larger sea and the
little fish that swim around doing the human thing. And there
she is in the fishbowl, poised between two looming cats (the
media and major record labels?), still refusing to take the corporate