REVIEW: Ani DiFranco – Little Plastic Castle (1998)

Part 3 of the Aaron Challenge:  He has challenged me to get out of my comfort zone.  Together, we will be reviewing some of the albums he bought in Toronto during Record Store Excursion 2012.  I’ve never heard any of these albums before, in fact I know almost nothing about most of these bands.  But I do know I sold a lot (a lot!) of Ani DiFranco during my time at the record store.

Aaron paid $2.99 for this, at Sonic Boom Music.

Check out his review here!

Ani_DiFranco_-_Little_Plastic_Castle

ANI DIFRANCO – Little Plastic Castle (1998 Righteous Babe)

I remember working at the store back in ’98, and the general reception from Ani DiFranco fans to this album was positive, but mildly critical.  There was a vibe that she had sold out for bigger success.  That was just what I was hearing.

Having not heard the previous albums, all I can say is good music is good music.  Yes, the production is lush and not what you’d think of “indy”.  Listen to those mariachi horns on the title track.  Not exactly low-fi.  But it sounds great!  What an upbeat, entertaining track.  Awesome.  Not to mention her guitar work is excellent.  The lyrics seem to be about public perception of what she should and should not be.

“Fuel” is one I’d heard before from Aaron.  I liked that one too.  I like when she’s goofy. This is beat poetry with a backing band.  Normally I go for a lead vocal with melody, but this works due to Ani’s well-composed expression.  From there it’s on to “Gravel”, a fast melodic one with more dexterous picking from Ani.  Another great tune, with melody to spare.    It’s a sparse arrangement, just guitar and voice with some percussion, and that’s it.

Drums introduce “As Is”, a soft pleasant song with barely audible keyboards in the background.  It’s laid back and slightly mournful but also playful, and pretty much perfect as is (pun intended).  “Two Little Girls” is dark, a tale of a difficult childhood.  Ani’s excellent picking, and a bouncy backing bassline, makes it entertaining, but lyrically it seems loaded with pain.

“Deep Dish” is the first song I didn’t enjoy.  It features samples and long spoken word bit, and is very rhythmic.  It did nothing for me, though.  Sorry Ani.  Nothing personal!  “Loom” however is a brief (under 3 minutes) explosion of drums and acoustic picking, more along the lines of what I like.  “Pixie” follows, one I didn’t click with.  Ani sings in a soft whisper, expressive as ever, I just didn’t like the song.  It didn’t have enough melody or punch for me.

A long song, “Swandive”, is a bit of a change of pace since most of the previous tunes were in the 4 minute range.  This one builds slowly.  “I’m gonna do my best swan dive, into shark infested waters,” sings Ani, while picking more of those great guitar parts.  “Glass House” totally changes the pace, with a bouncy wah-wah infested bass melody intro.  This is great.  I didn’t see that coming, nor the weird caterwauling trumpet that followed it!  Ani then whispers the lyrics, underlined by a pulsing bass, with the odd electronic effect.  Then just as you’re getting used to it, the drums kick in, accelerating the tune forward, and the vocals get angry.  Ani is nothing if not diverse, I’m learning, even within one song.

“Independence Day” is a beautiful song, melodic and passionate, slow and pretty.  A hit song in any just world.  The final song, “Pulse”, is another slow builder, with a beat poetry vibe to the verses.  It’s not brief either!  14 minutes!  It sounds a bit like a jam, but I wonder, since the whole album has more of a vibe of being carefully assembled rather than jammed out.

Little Plastic Castle is an excellent sounding album.  The guitars are lush, full and clear.  The snare drum sound is perfect. Production-wise, it’s a total triumph (and self-produced by Ani).  I think the album tends to sag a bit in the middle, after such a fine start, but it’s still a great album.

4/5 stars

MIKE AND AARON GO TO TORONTO

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15 comments

  1. I’m interested in how your doing these “Aaron Challenge” reviews. So was this a review based on one listen or did you give it a few goes?

    It seems like a good exercise for you as a writer cause because of the different styles you’re writing about. You’re doing really well at that side of it, I love how you describe the music.

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    1. Multiple listens. You know I am a perfectionist Scott, it is a curse. I can’t do anything half-arsed!

      I appreciate your comments. I feel like I can never use enough adjectives when describing music. Thank God for the online thesaurus! (I don’t have a paper one.)

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      1. I’ve never even thought of doing that! Top tip! And, out of interest, if one of these “Aaron Challenge” albums is a real stinker will you play it a second time to make sure?

        I think its why I couldn’t be a reviewer. I know music needs multiple listens but if something isn’t floating my boat I’m not sure I could force myself to listen to more than once!

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        1. Yes, I would definitely play it a second time, but if I’m going to trash an album, I want to be sure of it. Case in point when the new Sloan came out, I told Aaron I wasn’t too fussed. 2 or 3 listens later I was firmly in love. Maybe even lust!

          I only listen to what I want to, really, but if Aaron buy something I have to assume there’s a method to his madness. Now, if he screws me over with some Justin Bieber, I won’t be happy.

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        2. Yes it’s different if its a band I know and have liked I’m going to give albums more than one listen. If it’s something someone has just gave me or a new band there has to be something I’ve enjoyed to make me want to go back. Even if it’s just one song or a riff. If I had to write about it I’d do it like you to do though for sure. But, like you, I only really cover bands I like or am interested in.

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        3. You know what the worst is? When a girl gives you a CD and it sucks. But you feel obligated, because you like the girl. Thank God I’m married now!

          This one girl gave me a CD by Deadsy. My God was it awful.

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  2. Highly unlikely you’d get shite like Bieber from me, man. I wouldn’t even buy that JUST to play a joke on you. I couldn’t spend the good money on it, the joke wouldn’t be worth it, and then I’d have that crap in my house.

    It’s possible that something I bought won’t appeal to you. They all appealed to me, of course, or I wouldn’t have bought them. But this is why the Aaron Challenge is so good. If there’s a record Mike doesn’t like, it’ll make you break out some new adjectives. If all you ever did was write about the calssic rawk you love, your negative-critical muscle would atrophy from disuse.

    I loved that Sloan record from first play. Glad you came around, Dude.

    I’ve been fortunate, in my life. Girls have given me lots of music, but I liked most of it. The one girl I dated who was into stuff I didn’t like (new country), she knew better than to give me that as a gift.

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    1. I was given new country as a gift once. Shania. It was from an old boss of mine. A really nice guy. All we got in the office was Chym FM, and they played Shania all the time. He assumed I liked it :) Great guy though.

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  3. Yep, the record store climate has definitely changed. We used to take special trips to downtown TO to Yonge and Dundas – Sam’s and HMV. Last time we went was just before they closed Sam’s, and HMV was just turning commercial. I have no interest in that tripe. Gimme the dingy old record store!!

    Also, that KFC/ Taco Hell restaurant you were showing…funny story. We were going to Steve’s Music, and stopped at that KFC for a bite (back when I could eat KFC…). The place was packed! We found a booth and started to eat. A couple of total strangers just came and sat down at our table and started eating their food. No comment, like, “hey, you mind if we grab a bite here?” Not a word, except the “‘scuse me…” from us when we were leaving. Bizarre!

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    1. Toronto is a unique place. I remember a McDonalds across from Toronto Western hospital was so packed I thought I would have to stand. There was a crazy lady having a hell of a conversation with herself, and her table was organized with all kinds of her stuff, and she was the only occupant. But everybody left her alone.

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