I started out with way too many `Personal Best’ choices. In fact, my `Personal Best’ albums nearly doubled the number of albums I was already reviewing. Inevitably, some had to go. I began to whittle down by asking myself the tough questions. Is the entire album worthy, or just a few songs? That eliminated a few. If an artist was already represented, which of theirs is truly their best? A few more fell. Finally I asked myself, what albums on this list do you feel you absolutely HAVE to write about, specifically the ones that most likely no one else will? My `Personal Best’ list is now down to four, and if I were forced to limit myself to only one, this would be it, Ani DiFranco’s Out of Range.
I’ve reviewed five DiFranco albums for Treblezine, but this is the one that means the most to me. Out of Range wasn’t where I entered the DiFranco discography. That would have been 1996’s Dilate, another album that was on my `PB’ list but had to be cut. Out of Range and Dilate bookended what I believe to be her best three albums, with the insider being Not a Pretty Girl. It was around the time of this trio of albums that people outside of the LGBT underground began to stand up and take notice of Ms. DiFranco. Mainstream artists covered her songs, she received a Grammy nomination, and her music was popping up as sample tracks in magazines, alternative radio stations and even on television. It’s hard to say which three of these albums is more important. Critics loved Not a Pretty Girl, and Dilate sold more than any of her albums before or since. For me personally, as might be obvious by this review, the clear choice is Out of Range.
Tracks on Out of Range cover the gamut of DiFranco’s usual suspects of topics including personal freedom, politics, philosophies, abuse, feminism, being outspoken and thus being alone. Yet Out of Range had something that her previous four albums didn’t, and that’s a large representation of love songs. DiFranco jokes in a track on Living in Clip, her double live album, that she wrote the love songs on Dilate because she was `distracted.’ But I remember Dilate more for songs like “Napoleon” and “Superhero” rather than the others. OK, “Untouchable Face” is a massive song from that album, but the tracks on Out of Range simply speak to me more. In fact, out of the five songs I’m about to mention, it’s difficult for me to pick a favorite.
The first that shows up is “Hell Yeah,” a song I’ve included in compilations for paramours for years now. DiFranco’s gift in this song is her direct simplicity in baring her teenage-like feelings by singing, “I like you so much / I talk to everyone but you.” “Overlap” is another of those standout love songs, capturing the essences of initial infatuation, where you simply can’t get enough of the other person, wanting to study their features for hours. “Falling is Like This” arrives next, again revealing a softer side of DiFranco, not only lyrically but also musically, as the guitar notes are far more fluid and less of her staccato funk signature. The title tends to say it all, but her whispery vocals and poignant words say everything without saying a whole lot. “You Had Time” is a song where I know at least one other music writer agrees with me. Nick Hornby included the track in his Songbook, a collection of essays about his favorite music. Ani does it all on this song, playing every instrument, and including a transcendent avant-garde jazz piano opening that slowly is brought in line by her acoustic guitar. The moment where they meet is enough to take your breath away. The lyrics tell a tale of a love that’s falling apart, one broken not only by the artist’s constant touring, but of a simple case of knowing it’s all over. I’ve never heard a breakup song so lovely. The last song is “The Diner,” a song that stands apart from the others I’ve mentioned in numerous ways. For one, it’s not soft and delicate; it’s one of Ani’s supercharged punk folk free-for-alls. It’s not particularly lyrical, just straightforward. In it, our narrator, if we’re to assume it’s not Ani herself, and really how can we not, calls up an old flame and wants to meet again because she misses even the disgusting normalities of their relationship like nose blowing and toilet flushing. It’s a strange song, but incredibly infectious.
It’s not just these songs that make Out of Range my favorite. The entire album is worthy from beginning to end. There’s not a sour song in the bunch. “Buildings and Bridges,” the title track, the fan favorite “Letter to a John,” and “Face Up and Sing” are all great songs. It’s just that I feel more connected to the above five. I remember when I first heard of DiFranco. I was taking a class on lesbian poetry, a class I really enjoyed, despite the fact that I took it because the one on Beat poetry was full. The texts were to be bought at a feminist bookstore, and I stuck out like a juggalo at a frat mixer. There were DiFranco posters all over the walls. But when I was finally introduced to her music as opposed to her perceived persona, I was pleasantly surprised. Her songs didn’t seem to specifically be geared to any one gender. In fact, on the above mentioned songs on Out of Range, some or most of them might be aimed at women lovers, but the lyrics never reveal this fact. Even phrases like “in the he said she said sometimes there’s some poetry,” straight people could take it directly and gay listeners as accepted cliché. Four years after this album’s release, there was fan backlash over DiFranco’s marriage to a man. To those fans I cry shenanigans. If I, as a straight man, can be open and accepting of Ms. DiFranco’s music, regardless of either accepting or disregarding her perceived lifestyle, then why can’t you do the same?
Joni Mitchell – Blue
Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville
P.J. Harvey – Is This Desire?