Whatever! I Do What I Want!
Ani Difranco and Matthew Friedberger Go Their Own Ways

We’re more than halfway through, and it’s looking like 2006 is one of those periodic down years, musically speaking.

Not to say that there hasn’t been good stuff this year, or that there isn’t good stuff on the way. It’s just that the energy seems to be lacking. This is one of those years in which there seems to be no momentum, no rising tide of excellence that carries everyone along. There have been just as many disappointments this year as there have been works of genius, and many of the artists that made 2004 and 2005 such winning years seem to have taken 2006 off, or released so-so stopgap records.

This list includes Sufjan Stevens (although The Avalanche is very good, and we can’t expect him to drop another platter like Illinois so soon), Bruce Cockburn, Muse, Guster, Tool, Beth Orton, and the second of my two review subjects this week. My hopes are high for upcoming records by Eric Matthews, Roger Joseph Manning Jr., Starflyer 59, the Decemberists, Beck and Jeremy Enigk, to name a few, but I’m not getting too thrilled just yet. And the news that Aimee Mann, one of the best songwriters currently working, will release a Christmas record, of all things, this fall doesn’t make me jump for joy, either.

This happens from time to time, and it’s nothing to worry about. But it does take a toll on my excitement level. I still buy just as many records, but fewer of them have really stuck with me this year. No slight intended to the likes of Keane, Mute Math, David Mead or any of the other acts that have knocked me out. It’s just that the overwhelming majority of 2006’s musical offerings have been mediocre-to-good, not fantastic.

It may come down to what I want out of music. I’m looking for craft and passion, of course, but mostly I’m after an individual vision, fully realized, that I can follow and explore. Because of the way the industry works, such visions are rare, especially when extended over an entire career. I have seen it happen too many times – a band is on a creative musical path, and they stop it short because the label doesn’t like it, or the commercial concerns intervene. (I call it the Monster Effect, after R.E.M.’s disastrous 1994 album. That record abruptly ended the fascinating journey the band had been on, one which had led to the amazing Automatic for the People two years before.)

Art vs. commerce is an old topic here at tm3am, but I firmly believe that the only way for an extended artistic vision to fully flower is for it to be fully funded, with no outside interference. The artist writes and records, the label releases the product untouched, and everyone sinks or swims on the merits of the music. This hardly ever happens, of course, but it’s worth celebrating when it does. The most compelling musical journeys, for me, occur when artists are allowed to do whatever they want, whenever they want. The results are not always successful, but they are always interesting.

Off the top of my head, though, I can only name a few prolific artists doing things their own way, on their own dime, with no interference at all, and at the top of the heap is Ani Difranco. Since day one, Difranco has been releasing her stuff on her own Righteous Babe Records, and she’s responsible for everything, from track selection to artwork. Over time, she has grown into a model of self-reliant creativity – she rarely does the same thing twice, and you can be sure that every album she puts out is exactly the way she wants it to be.

One thing Difranco does better than most anyone else is packaging. Righteous Babe started with black-and-white cassette inserts and home tape duplication 16 years ago, and Difranco’s whole system of distribution was her touring van. These days, she puts her heart and soul into the look and feel of each record, and even her official bootleg series has a neat, interlocking design to it.

Her latest, Reprieve, is no exception, and currently has the prize for best packaging of the year. It comes in a cardboard slipcase that depicts, raised and embossed, a photo of a tree taken in Nagasaki shortly after the bomb dropped. Pull the digipak out, and you get another tree motif, in raised and embossed cardboard, and a vertically opening case that includes an impeccably designed art object of a booklet. This type of attention to art design has become par for the course with Difranco, and it’s almost worth buying her annual records just to see what she’s done with the trappings.

Lately, though, she hasn’t been lavishing as much attention on the music inside these glittering packages. Difranco is a restless artist, and just when you think she’s hit her stride, she’ll push off in another direction entirely – just ask the legions of fans who have abandoned her in recent years, due to her refusal to make another Out of Range or Little Plastic Castle. For half a decade, she worked with a jazz horn section and an amazingly tight band to produce several massive, difficult records, culminating in 2003’s Evolve, on which she finally sounded absolutely comfortable.

So, of course, she ditched the band right after that and set off on another journey. This one seems to be more introspective, less grand – her first album after Evolve was Educated Guess, which she made entirely by herself, with limited success. After a brief sojourn into more elegant accessibility with Knuckle Down last year, she’s back to quiet near-minimalism on Reprieve, easily the most atmospheric collection she’s ever recorded.

The difference is, this time she’s made a masterpiece.

Although I’m still not sure why I think so. The songs on Reprieve are little more than sketches, fragments of thought and melody that waft in and out. Difranco is still using her de-tuned guitar as the primary instrument, with its slack tones and sometimes off-key fumbles. The only other musician is bassist Todd Sickafoose, who adds a jazzy feel here and there. Otherwise, the sound is as it was established on Educated Guess.

But in retrospect, where that record set the style, its follow-ups have been attempts to decorate it, to place it in new settings. Reprieve uses ambient synthesizers, nature sounds, electric pianos and sound effects to paint a mood, one that lends these scattered thoughts the feel of a 48-minute song. From the start, the atmosphere is king – “Hypnotized” opens with a minute-long stand-up bass solo that congeals into a verse and chorus so gradually that you barely notice it. From there, guitars glide in and out, and Difranco’s voice coos and snarls, but the record barely gets above a whisper.

It’s an incredibly compelling whisper, however. Difranco balances internal and external concerns throughout, starting the album with four songs about attraction and transitioning into angrier, more political territory around the halfway point. But Reprieve merges the two so completely that they feel like different sides of the same thought. The vitriolic “Millennium Theater” drifts across on a soft and gentle bed, Difranco calling out Enron and Halliburton while calling for President Bush’s impeachment while the music chimes and ripples beneath her, and immediately after that, “Half-Assed” marks the most frenzied moment of the album, with personal lyrics about regret and enjoying each second.

In truth, these songs can’t stand on their own too well – there’s no melodic hook that will stick in your brain, no standout track like “Studying Stones” or “As Is.” But somehow Difranco has turned these half-realized tunes into a fully realized album, despite including no drums and no easy entry points. The album carries you from first note to last, and when she brings it home with “Shroud,” a classic old-time folk anthem about tossing off the shackles of modern life and selfishness, the moment is transcendent. Yes, the song sounds out of tune, and yes, by itself it’s no great shakes, but at the end of this record, it’s like a great moment of waking, a powerful dawn.

This is another album that any label with any sense would have tried to convince Difranco not to make, and it’s definitely another step towards something greater down the line. But not only do I love seeing Difranco’s process laid bare year after year, I love it when her experimentalism yields results, as it has here. I can’t explain the spell that Reprieve casts, and I’d have a hard time naming these 13 among her best songs, but I can’t help thinking of this as one of her best records. It is a quiet triumph, a creeping and moody work that gets under your skin in the best way. Fans of the old, folksy Ani may not enjoy it, but for those who love to watch restless artists dig their way in and work their way out, Reprieve should prove captivating.

* * * * *

If there’s anyone who looks ready to rival Ani Difranco for Most Prolific Artist, it’s Matthew Friedberger. As the male half of the Fiery Furnaces, Friedberger has co-written and produced five full-lengths since 2003 with his sister Eleanor, and now, mere months after the 72-minute Bitter Tea, he’s unleashed his 105-minute solo debut, Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School. It is simultaneously the sixth and seventh album of his brief career, and proof that someone needs to tell him no once in a while.

No question, the Friedbergers have quickly amassed one of the most idiosyncratic and original catalogs you’re likely to hear. But so far, I’ve been able to roll with it – I remain unimpressed with the flat blues-rock of Gallowsbird’s Bark, but the twisty, garage-proggy Blueberry Boat and Bitter Tea are little wonders, and I’m one of the few that considers the Friedbergers’ rock opera about their grandmother, Rehearsing My Choir, one of their best.

And maybe it’s just overexposure, but I’m finding Matthew’s solo album to be impenetrable. It’s as if I’ve reached my tolerance for quirky keyboard rock operas – this sort of thing should probably only be attempted in small doses, but here are two complete albums of thumping pianos, cheap-sounding synths, odd electronic percussion and stop-on-a-dime arrangements. I’m not sure what my problem is, because by all indications Matthew is just as much of a nutty genius as ever, and very little of these two albums sounds out of character with his main band.

Maybe it’s just that I miss Eleanor’s pretty voice. Matthew has a low near-monotone, which works for backing vocals and for contrast on Furnaces albums, but has trouble carrying 100 minutes of material on its own. He talks his way through most of Holy Ghost Language School, definitely the odder of these two discs, and I found myself hoping for a vocal melody to latch on to.

Winter Women, the first of these albums, is marginally more song-oriented, and worlds more melodic. A song like “Up the River’ is actually sort of hummable, although Friedberger makes it more difficult here to find the melodies than on Furnaces albums. He employs Tortoise’s John McEntire on drums, and instructs him, apparently, to fill the spaces with random pounding. He drowns the record in odd sounds, some forwards and some backwards, that only serve as distractions.

Friedberger plays all the instruments on Holy Ghost Language School, a supposed conceptual suite about a businessman who sets up a school for speaking in tongues (I guess). At times sounding like Frank Zappa’s 1980s work with the synclavier, this album is a keyboard-fueled nightmare of self-indulgence. And while I admire it, I find it difficult to listen to all the way through. It just seems too random, too quirky-for-quirky’s-sake, with no real grounding.

The lyrics don’t help matters, and here is where Eleanor’s presence is truly missed. Her crystal-clear tones help sell the bizarre concepts that float through every Furnaces record, adding a depth and earthiness to them. Matthew on his own just sounds like he’s reciting the words, especially on the more novelistic Holy Ghost. It’s unfortunate, because some of the tunes on Winter Women are worth saving, and perhaps turning into full-fledged Furnaces songs, but it’s difficult to hear that potential in their current state.

And for the first time, the Matthew Friedberger sound feels like a parody of itself – he needs to open up the floodgates a little more, and perhaps break away from the same machines and pianos he’s been using. I predicted some of his arrangement tricks on this album – “Oh, here’s where he will drop everything and switch to dissonant left-hand piano chords,” for instance, or, “Here comes the backwards sound effect.” Enough of these records remain surprising to keep it from being a disaster, but it might be time for another seismic shift in the way Friedberger does things.

All of this is just an attempt to explain why I am disappointed in something that meets my criteria for engaging art – it explores a singular vision, follows it to its fullest extent, and seems thoroughly un-meddled-with by the industry at large. And yet, I think Friedberger needs to slow down a little, and let the inspiration rise up again. Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School only exists in the form it does because no one told him it shouldn’t, and maybe in this case, a little oversight might not have been a bad thing.

But Friedberger remains a stone genius, a musician with few peers in his field, and if he needed to get this sprawling mess out of his system, then I’m glad he did. Ani Difranco has made a few sprawling messes of her own (Up Up Up Up Up Up, anyone?), and they were all steps to something greater. I can only hope that Friedberger learned whatever he needed to learn about himself and his process by putting this thing together, and that the next Furnaces album will find him renewing his focus.

Next week, any number of possibilities.

See you in line Tuesday morning.