remember Ani DiFranco! She had a nose ring and green hair, right? Me and my friend bought her CDs in junior high and saw her and we were totally blown away that a folksinger would have a turntablist and horn players in her entourage. Saw her open for Dylan, too, and he seemed honestly a bit freaked out by her.
That was back in the ‘90s, when difference was celebrated in Lollapalooza’s freak show, when something like Lilith Fair could’ve taken place. In the crazy alt-vacuum of the ‘90s, where anyone stood a chance at a hit, even oddities like the Breeders and Crash Test Dummies, a bald, wordy, bisexual feminist icon of the underground who put out her own records could go Gold. I’m pretty sure this kind of DIY success has only happened twice, the other being Fugazi. I know I’m discounting her still-sizeable cult and her recent streak of Grammy wins for er, Best CD Package, but the very release of this best-of, by a CEO (ick, hate that word, don’t you Ani), implies even our 19-albums-in-17-years-including-one-studio-double-Jesus-Christ sweetheart a) finally knows her best is behind her and b) wants a teensy tiny piece of the exploitation game, too.
It’s nothing to be ashamed of; she’s worked her ass off. Money may be the root of all evil but it’s also the root of all health insurance. And it’s not like she hasn’t larded her catalogue with double lives—the first of which was great, actually—and remix/EP ephemera before. None of these were great offenses, though I never did watch the late-period DVD I was gifted one Hanukkah, but it’s clear she’s been at the hookah with her buddy Prince, who’s finally begun repackaging himself in “Very Best Ofs” like it was Warner’s slave-driving 1992 again.
Pro: it is indeed true that Ani’s vast canon needs definitive cherry-picking, so jokes aside, Canon is welcome. Con: we have to trust The Artiste herself with the tracklisting, and that’s where the bandleader/CEO thing becomes a disadvantage. Never, ever, ever trust an artist’s self-selection, be it commercial wiseguys like Goo Goo Dolls (who left their two biggest breadwinners off their pointless “we rock out, too” gay-panic comp) or sole Mountain Goat herder John Darnielle, who thinks the morose Get Lonely is the best thing he’s ever done.
But then, her “best” picks might as well be as good as anyone else’s. From the fruitful period alone, Disc One’s string of stunners starts with two early gems this eight-albums-deep junior high schooler forgot: “Fire Door,” “God’s Country,” “Cradle & All,” “Shy,” “32 Flavors,” “Gravel,” “Untouchable Face,” and the easy three ringers from Little Plastic Castle, the album I’m pretty sure was the first fans got a bit pissy about, due to cavils like the “Under the Sea” horns on the title track (full disclosure: it’s my dad’s favorite).
But without “Anticipate,” “Letter to a John,” “In or Out,” “Adam & Eve,” all thoughtfully included on the real first-wave best-of, 1997’s live, mid-peak Living in Clip, and flubbing another opportunity to highlight the lost classic “What If No One’s Watching” (from Imperfectly, 1992, iTunes it!) you might as well be listening to another of her best almost-theres; Dilate and Not a Pretty Girl have the most reliable hit-miss ratios.
So the wild card (and really, always, in these tests) is Disc Two, which supposedly skims the stuff you missed (the “jazz” stuff). But even an off-the-trainer like me remembers “Going Once” or the funky “Swing” should’ve kicked the ass of “Hello Birmingham” to rep To the Teeth to open. The artiste surprisingly knows her later strengths a bit, picking should’ve-beens like the fantastic, stuttering “Here for Now,” the see-sawing “Manhole” and “Studying Stones,” and rescuing “Swim” from the rarely interesting and barely acknowledged Educated Guess. But it’s just not enough. Those formers are already best heard on Evolve and Knuckle Down, her best two ignored albums. So check those out instead; you’ll thank me when you get to “Slide.”
Alas, for all her scarily relevant “Move over Mr. Holiness, let the little people through,” she still wastes six minutes on meanderings like “You Had Time” (“You are china shop / And I am a bull / You are really good food / But I am full,” youch). Almost anything from 1992, when she really found her voice, through 1999’s strange, hypnotic Up Up Up Up Up Up will serve you with all the disconcertingly honest quotables, DIY slogans, and irregular, kilter-missing guitar hooks a casual fan could ever hope. As for our honorable CEO, she only proves that the Do It Yourself aesthetic should make exceptions for editing.
Reviewed by: Dan Weiss
Reviewed on: 2007-10-08